acceptance · confidence · fears · letting go

When Failure Is The Only Option

Our little family is officially on summer break, but my thoughts are still wrapped around something that happened at the end of the school year. My son had a presentation due in the final weeks of the last quarter – an in-depth, visual, interactive, role-play type of assignment.

Now, while I am a hands-on parent and actively involved in my son’s education, I am also a realist.

He is in middle school so I only help when absolutely necessary. He is responsible for class assignments, school projects, homework, studying, deadlines, teacher communications, library returns, etc. I no longer interfere or assist or remind about his academics because he is old enough to be held accountable.

He needs to succeed on his own which also means he needs to fail on his own.

So it was that his presentation was due in two days, and he had neglected to mention it. I scrambled to purchase the most basic of supplies and offered to proofread his final report (I am a writer; I can’t help myself). And as I did, I realized he was probably not going to do very well. The example the teacher provided as a guide was far more elaborate, very detailed, extremely organized, and painstakingly set up to impress.

After rushing between school and baseball to print, cut, arrange, paste, and label, he declared himself to be finished and ready for the big presentation. I studied his project board – it was neat, organized, easy to understand. It was … presentable. But still, I am a writer, a person who loves to create and research. I enjoy the planning and effort it takes to make a project shine – pop – and wow.

I feared his project would not wow.

To be honest, I did not even care about his grade. What truly worried me was that he would feel inferior to other kids who had cooler projects with interesting props and better information. But as I watched my son gaze over his finished product with pride in its creation and satisfaction in its completion, I let it all go.

This was his and his alone – he would decide whether he did just enough or more than enough. And he would ultimately pay the price or be rewarded with his grade.

The next morning my husband went to the presentation (parents were invited) and texted a picture of my son smiling beside his project board. Over dinner that evening my son said a lot of people stopped at his station to listen to him speak and complimented his interpretation of a young boy from ancient China. He compensated for a lack of decorative props and colorful design with extensive knowledge and sheer confidence.

He proved less was more. He succeeded when I feared he might fail.

Too often we believe we know the right way to a happy ending simply because we have already walked the path ourselves, found how to get there. And because of this, we hope to save others from the pain or struggle, make it easier somehow.

The problem? If another person constantly tries to guarantee our success we will never understand the importance purpose, desire, and determination play in the achievement of goals. We will never experience the incredible sense of accomplishment that comes from difficult work or rough days. We will never know our victory is sweeter because we fell down and then picked ourselves up (as many times as it took).

And while sharing personal experience is important, it is not always the best predictor of success. Sometimes we must heed the advice of others who have been there while subsequently ignoring it. We must jump into something with nothing more than the simple faith we will be okay because we have done all we can do.

We need to rely on our ability, believe our best is good enough until we are told it is not. And if we do fail, we need to learn how to avoid failing again. On our own.

Mapping our own path often means we will stay on it longer. Perhaps more importantly, it might reveal that pushing to be better is not always a marker of success. Just because we try harder does not guarantee we will get what we want. Sometimes, perseverance is simply a reminder we are able to do great things, things we may have believed to be out of reach. Yes, we might reach a little too high and tumble to the ground. But that is the beauty of failure. It reminds us why we want something, makes it more desirable, and helps us determine if it is really worth it.

I still plan to nudge my son, encourage him to try a little harder, work a little more, and go above and beyond the moment when he thinks he is finished. But I am also going to let him make his own mistakes and allow him to fail. In truth, I hope he fails a lot because that would mean he stepped outside his comfort zone, took chances, and pushed the limits.

Perhaps then he will see himself as I do – so amazing and talented and smart and funny and loving and a reflection of all that is possible in this world. Only then will I feel I have succeeded.


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