Monday, May 30, 2011

Failure is an Option

A commercial from the 1990s displayed NBA legend Michael Jordan narrating all of his stats. But, instead of mentioning his NBA Championships, MVP Awards, Scoring Titles, and All-Star accolades, Jordan rattles off the number of shots he has missed, the number of games he has lost, the number of times he was trusted to take a game winning shot and missed and how failure was a neccesary ingredient in his success.

A very interesting and humbling perspective, even from Air Jordan himself. Somehow, and I know I sound incredibly old in saying this, I can not imagine many of today's starts declaring their shortcomings so openly. I'd even go so far as to say that even Nike no longer wants to tell any of its athletes who they should be or how they should behave...right?

Regardless of the current state of professional athletics (compared to the "Golden Age" of my childhood), Jordan's philosophy on the importance of failure resonated with me back as a teenager and remains with me today. As an educator, I see that a willingness to fail is a trait found in good learners. As the father of a 7 month old daughter, I see this philosophy lived out every day.

With eating under her belt, Elizabeth has shifted her focus to crawling. Able to creep, Elizabeth has not yet mastered the art of moving forward on all fours. Belly flops, rolls, tangled legs and incessant rocking followed by screams and wails have all been a part of her learning-how-to-crawl process. She's close, and will probably be crawling soon, but she probably just needs to fail a few more times so she can figure it out.

In addition to education taking time and effort (see the May 15 post), it also takes a willingness to fail, and in turn, failure itself. So, as educators, we must couple holding students accountable to high academic and moral statnds with loving support, nurturing and care. Right now, Elizabeth has a curiosity and love for exploration that is truly inspiring. She also has a determined spirit, and at this point a blind courage. Failure to eat, crawl or find her pacificer at night (even multiple pacifiers that have been strategically sprinkled in her crib) has not deterred her from trying.

Hopefully, this love for learning and her willingness to take risks will continue into toddler-hood, childhood, adolesence and beyond. Whether it is an unwavering self-confidence or an iron will, the older we get the less likely we are to tackle new challenges. For most of us, at some point in our lives we start to believe the lies of the one who wishes to keep us from becoming who God created us to be. You're not smart enough. You're not pretty/handsome enough. Savvy, strong, well-rounded, disciplined, healthy enough. You're too young. Too old. You're not good enough.

You are a sinner.

And so we stop trying. We stop challenging ourselves and growing. Maybe (and unfortunately) teachers, parents or even friends have reinforced these negative feelings. Maybe the pain of a particular failure, rejection or loss was too deep and the support needed to overcome it too shallow.

And in no longer trying we no longer fail and in turn gain control over the pain. We never have to worry about living down to the disappointment of missing a game winning shot if we always pass to another player, stay on the bench, watch it from the stands or critique it the next day at the water cooler. Playing it safe means we never fail.

It is encumbent upon Catholic educators to kindle the flame inherent in each of us for greatness. We must handle this light with extreme care and caution. The USCCB's Council for Catholic Education states (1998), "Teaching has an extraordinary moral depth and is one of man's most excellent and creative activities, for the teacher does not write on inanimate material but on the very spirits of human beings. The personal relations between teacher and student, therefore, assume an enormous importance."

Catholic educators, approach every day and every student knowing that you affect eternity.

The World already has too many wandering people with extinquished flames.

It has too many people so afraid of failing that they never even try.

It has too many would be saints wallowing in the mud figuring there's no point in getting up- they'll just fall again anyways.

What it needs is more failures, more people who realize that in order to be successful failure is an option.

It's just not the only option.