From the Principal

Failure Really is an Option

From the principal - failure

Recently I had to make a critical decision and make it quickly. Problem identified. Consultations carried out. Solutions weighed. Decision made. Move on.

This was possible because in the past I had, in a similar circumstance, wavered and held off making a decision (for the best of reasons, with the advice I had at the time etc) and I got it wrong.

I “stuffed up”.

No one died or ended up in hospital as a result of the decision or non-decision but it did have some negative consequences.

The memory of that decision lingers with me, not as a regret but as a learning experience and a guarantee that the same mis-step will not be taken again.

We will make mistakes. It is part of the human condition.

In the highly competitive world our students are educated in and moving into, there has become a great fear of making mistakes – of failing.

Our core response to failure is fear. Fear of not being the person we thought we were, fear of what others may think of us, fear of how others will respond to our failure and a fear of the consequences for our future career and development. Often an exaggerated sense of the consequences accompanies that fear.
-Ray Steinwall, Adjunct Professor in Law, University of New South Wales.

Unfortunately, never making a mistake, never moving out of our comfort zone or never being held responsible for our actions (or inactions) is dangerous.

As an educator, I have watched students who have never failed or never been anywhere but at the top of the class fall into a heap when a test score comes back that is lower than he/she expected.

I have seen students who have never done the wrong thing be on the verge of self harm when they have made a bad decision and were forced to face up to the consequences of a poor choice.

These students have never known failure, disappointment or responsibility before and they did not have the tools, skills or attitudes to deal with their situation.

The thinking pattern of the student who does poorly on one assignment goes something like this – my parents will be annoyed, my teacher will think I am not a good student, I will fail the course, I won’t get into university, I won’t get a good job. My life is over.

I have also seen parents trying to rescue their children when they find them in pain because they have not met their own or their parents’ expectations.

In this case it is often easier to blame others, teachers, classmates, the fairness of the test, the correctness of the response by the school etc than to allow their child to feel the pain and move through it.

This process has become known as “cotton-wooling”. (Cotton-wool Generation Definition: The children and teenagers of the early 21st century, viewed as having been overprotected while growing up.)

The problem is that while they are unable, or unwilling, to accept not being the top student, or they are being protected from not always succeeding, they forget the times they delivered exceptional assignments. They fall into catastrophic thoughts around this failure while ignoring or downplaying other successes. And they do not learn from the experience.

A single failure becomes a “life-defining crisis”.

On the other hand, I have seen students who have made mistakes in the small things, veered away from the right track, fallen on their face but pulled themselves back up, learnt from the mistake and moved on.

Sure, none of us wants to fail. It is unpleasant dealing with the feeling of frustration, annoyance or anxiety that accompanies it. However, once those feelings subside, it is important to see failure as a natural part of life. Not wishing to fail is an understandable human desire. We do not want our family, friends, teachers etc to think we are not capable in case they look at us differently.

At school, at university or at work, we want our teachers and professors and managers to see us as bright, intelligent students at the top of the class or great employees on track for our advancement in our chosen career.

A better way to look at failure is to recognise that it is normal and to ask what we can learn from it. How can we improve on what we did, so we do not repeat the mistakes or at least are better equipped to manage the next failure – and there will be others – many of them. Dealing with failure is an important life skill that teaches resilience.

There will be mistakes.
There will be errors.
There will be embarrassment and pain.
There will be hard times.

But sometimes getting something wrong today will teach you a lesson that will stop you getting something bigger wrong in the future.



Mr Terry Muldoon
Principal, St Columba Anglican School
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