Failure and Fear, Our internal teachers

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Much has been written about the importance of failure.  While disappointing, it teaches us, a) to keep going, b) that unintended consequences can be serendipitous (or disastrous, it is true), and c) how things work and do not work.  Failure galvanizes us to reevaluate, and–if we learn it well enough–not to give up just because the desired success was unmet.  Keep going, keep trying are important lessons, themselves.  Failure also challenges us to reconsider what went wrong.  Sometimes we fail because we did not plan well, or because we left out a step, or because our hypothesis was simply wrong, or because the data/evidence was faulty, or because we were afraid of something that created, in that moment, an insurmountable road block.  Sometimes we fail because of our fears.

Fear, like failure, is one of those teachers we take around with us.  We’re used to seeing fear as something negative, something we should ideally live without, but I think it is a little more complicated than that.  If we acknowledge our fears, sit down and really explore them, we can get at deeper roots–the sort that often lead to fear’s evaporation.  Fear is really only a negative when it is externally and unjustly thrust upon us as by a totalitarian state, or when we allow it to paralyze us.

Fear of failure… fear of public speaking… fear of rejection… fear of being a fool… fear of success…  These are all common to writers, artists, creative types, and students.  How do we know that we fear such things?  Well, sometimes that takes a while to figure out.  We look at our inaction, we look at our failures, and we look at all those times everything should have worked out, where there was all that potential, and did not.  Why did we not get hired, why did we not publish more, why did we not speak at more conferences, etc.?  Because, something inside inhibited us and got in the way of our talents and our potential.  What was it?  After honest reflection, what prevented us from initiating or finishing?

Honest reflection is the key, here, but if we can do that, take responsibility and make a plan for the next time, we can really grow.  Courage doesn’t only happen on battle fields.  The courage to overcome fear is the same courage that overcomes failure.  Do not take fear complacently, or write it off as if to say, “well, I don’t do that because I have a fear of it,” but rather sit down and probe the fear, make it uncomfortable.  In the same way that anger is the symptom of being hurt or scared, fear is the symptom of something deeper still.  Embrace the fear and dig to the root of it.  For example, someone may fear success because he is not sure he handle the responsibilities that come with it; or, someone may fear failure because she does not want to disappoint those with high expectations of her.  The key is to deal with the problem that lies underneath and feeds the fear.

I’m not really talking about your standard phobias, here, but any fear that paralyzes or limits us should be challenged.  (Admittedly, fear can warn us of danger, too.  I am not endorsing recklessness, though risk-taking is important to human growth–so is banging your shins, now and again.)  Fear can be a tool and a motivator in its own right.  A friend of mine was afraid of water–with good reason–and challenged that fear by becoming a life guard.  She used the fear as a tool to overcome it.  Needless to say, she’s my hero!  Humans are meant to grow, so we should challenge, in a healthy way, the things that prevent our growth.  We’ll learn a lot that way.

I want to recommend the following online articles: “The 7 Biggest Creativity Killers,” “The 40-30-30 Rule: Why Risk is Worth It,” and, “Why Can’t I Finish?”  Their content is germane to this discussion.

I also want to suggest that as educators, it our responsibility to nurture students and help them overcome their own personal stumbling stones.  Why does an incredibly bright student not hand in his homework?  Is it because he is bored, or is because he feels the pressure of being smart means that everything he hands in must be perfect, so to avoid  anything less than perfection he hands in nothing?  Why does another student shy away from leadership roles that seem a natural fit?  Maybe she does not think she has time, or maybe she is terrified at the thought of speaking in front of a crowd even though she is very articulate and thoughtful one-on-one or in small groups.

Unfortunately, often the fears of our youth have greater consequences than we or others can foresee.  Bright students who turned down Ivy League scholarships because they were afraid of moving away from home and settle for community college; gifted musicians who don’t audition for prestigious music programs because the pressure is too great and end up resenting their musical gifts; students whose fear of failure is so palpable they fail out of college without having really tried; these are common, heartbreaking stories.  It does not mean that when they turn 30, 40, or 50 they are stuck in the rut in which they landed at 18, but  it does mean that they’ll have to learn from the initial failures and fears to reach the point where they can regain their former potential.

Educators can teach a respectable comfort-level with failure and fear by building in low-stakes risks and rewarding failure if it is coupled with healthy reflection and fear if it is overcome or simply turned into a learning tool by the students.  (I do not suggest rewarding sloppiness or carelessness born out of apathy, unless, of course, it is turned into a valid and useful learning experience.)  With projects-based learning, especially, academic competitions (not for grades), and other such tools, we can teach students to recognize their fears and their potential failures as important learning experiences.  Students will understand that failure and fear are our internal teachers that take with them into the world.

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