One of the bullets of information I cannot forget from undergrad came from my child development class. I loved this class with all my heart. I think because it started opening up all these explanations for how I turned out how I did. It was pretty exciting.
Anyways, one day, my professor was talking about failure. I can't remember any of the technical names, but the discussion was such a relief. He just explained the failure process. There was a fancy name for it—sorry I can't remember. But, knowing about the failure process was important to me because achievement, at the time, was crucial to my self-esteem. Instead of just a straightforward assessment of learning, A's on a test meant I was a good person. A's made me feel really happy about myself. Getting less than an A was devastating.
But then, one day in class my teacher said something like this:
[Insert fancy technical term which I can't remember anymore], you all know what this feels like, you get a C on a test and you go home and cry in your bed and feel like a failure. You hate yourself. This is the [insert fancy term I can't remember anymore] phase. You have two choices, either stay in bed with your self-loathing, or get up, recognize your error, make appropriate adjustments and practice proficiency.I did know what that felt like! I had gone home and cried in bed over test grades!
Suddenly some things clicked:
In class, we were talking about how kids learn and develop. Failure is necessary to this process (for both physical and emotional learning). I had never considered that failure could be a good thing. That recognition of error is actually an awesome opportunity and not admission of lostness, of stupidness or of general crappiness.
- Self-worth has nothing to do with grades or achievement (and now, many years later, I can add more to this list: self-worth has nothing to do with how many people like you, if you make a lot of money, how many friends you have, if you're funny or not funny, if you ever get published, etc etc, this list could go on for miles.
- It's natural to go through a phase where you face, head-on, the tragedy of realizing you failed or errored (in skill, in knowledge, in expectation). This phase does not feel good. It feels crappy. It's usually extremely painful.
And, the thing that always haunts me when I want to give up and just come to terms with my alleged worthlessness, is the part where my professor said, This is where you have two choices, cry in your bed or practice proficiency.
I want to practice proficiency.
Which means facing error & failure with openness, with the questions: How can I change? What can I learn?