At the beginning of the year I always tell my kids a story of me in university. The story of how after busting my ass, I got 17% on my midterm and my professor scrawled “Great Improvement!” on my paper because it was. Math was foreign to me and that 17% was like a solid A in my math deficient mind and a huge improvement from the secure 6% I had got on my last assignment where my poor professor had taken to just writing smiley faces beside my work. I whooped it up after class, passing that midterm around like I had received a gold medal in “Equations that Make Sense To Nobody”. Reveling in my failure didn’t cause me to give up or rest on my laurels knowing I had firmly secured a solid D- in the class but changing my perspective DID encourage me to enjoy the class more and it took a ridiculous amount of stress off myself.
Failing does not equal failure.
I remind my students of this before every quiz. Before each test, their pencils are put to the side and I ask them very gravely if this spelling test is going to decide their fate. Will they be held back if they do not get 100% on Spelling List #14? Will their hair fall out if they forget how to spell a word? If they forget a silent letter, should we begin preparing our zombie shelters? After we stop talking about the possibility of a zombie attack, the students are ready. We’ve taken the fear out of failing and there’s nothing left for them to worry about.
Failing means you tried.
The class rule is though- fail big. Don’t fail by copying others. Don’t fail by not trying. Don’t fail by never starting. Don’t fail by squishing an idea into your head that does not feel right. Fail by being smarter than technology. For having ideas we can’t figure out how to assemble yet. Fail by asking a question that you don’t know the answer to and will spend an afternoon trying to research. Fail hugely. Make your failures the kind that we talk about after. Not in the “Can you believe she did that?” tone saved for your elderly relatives when your sister shows up to Thanksgiving dinner with a piercing, but in the awe inspired voice soaked in admiration and excitement.
Because when you fail, you remind others to try.
I’ve been working on making my failures bigger. Adults tend to want to minimize their failures- to smooth them out with bright words and clever distractions. We want to get it the first try, to live a boring life of right answers and calm seas. But I’ve discovered that I- like my students, am happier when I fail. Because when you take bigger risks? The fail may be bigger but so is the reward when you DO get it right. Which is how I ended up with $1500 in new classroom resources for next year. And how I got my full time teaching contract. And how for the first time in four years, I’m sleeping without sleeping pills. My failures- my ability to embrace a failure as my first attempt at success rather than a reason to quit, become a nun and shun myself from society is making a huge difference in my life.
Your homework assignment is to find something to fail big at. Make it an enormous fail, worthy of adoration. Let yourself be so secure in your own genius that you are willing to put yourself out there and try something bigger. Avoid calm seas and clever distractions. There will be no zombie attack if you propose a new idea, tackle a new sport, make a declaration that’s lived only inside yourself and you fail. I promise.
Now grab your pencil.
Your test has started.