Successes and failures
Miss G’s favorite teacher put in his notice this year, and she’s pretty pissed off about it. You know how people talk about that one teacher who made a difference for them? For her, that’s this guy.
On Last Day of School Eve, Miss G kicked up in my office, working on stuff.
“Homework for the last day?” I ask. “Who assigned that?”
“Mr. Devos,” she says, irritated. “He wants us to write a paper on how him being really hard on us and having us constantly rewrite papers helped us.”
“Well, I’m sorry about last day of school homework,” I say. “But he’s right. You learn way more from a paper that’s all marked up than you do from an easy A.” And I tell her about the tough teacher I had my senior year of high school who slapped me with my first bad grade ever on a paper, and how her high standards made me a better writer.
“Yeah,” she says, sulking. “I guess. It’s just stupid to write a paper on sucking at something.”
“Actually, failure is super important. More important than success,” I said.
And she rolls her eyes at me, so I start explaining.
A few years back, my mom made these scrapbooks for all of us kids packed with childhood memorabilia, including report cards from birth through high school graduation.
When I saw those stacks and stacks of high grades and “Good Job!s” and “What a great student!!s,” my first thought was “Wow, how did I get from so much potential to here?” At that time, our efforts to blend a family were a disaster, my physical health was a mess, and I had no idea how to coax new growth back into the hard and seemingly stunted life I’d dug myself into. I felt like my report cards were shaking their heads at me, disappointed. Like I could have and should have done or been so much more.
As things have shifted much more toward the positive over the time that’s passed since then, I’ve felt less judged by those report cards and my younger self. I’ve gained perspective, become less critical and thought a lot about what defines success. And what defines failure.
Invariably, when yoga instructors lead a class into a balancing pose, they give a speech about how it’s okay to lose your balance: “You only learn to keep your balance by falling,” they say.
This is literally the only time and place in my life anyone has ever talked positively about failure. Failure as no biggie. Failure as a learning experience. Failure as a step that moves you forward. All of these are essential elements for eventual success. Yet for some reason, we heap unrealistic expectations on ourselves, insisting– and teaching our kids too– that failure is not acceptable. We demand immediate, immaculate perfection.
Yet, failure in a lot of ways is more important than success, because we learn way more from fixing our fuck-ups than we do from sticking the landing the first time around.
The truth is, though, neither our successes nor our failures define us. The successes are impossible without a learning curve. And often failures aren’t ‘failures’ at all when taken in context; they’re just part of finding your balance.
I tell all of this to Miss G.
“It’s so easy to get hung up on success or failure, depending,” I say. “But they’re both part of the process. That’s exactly what this painting about.” And I point to my latest work in progress.
She glances at the canvas. “That’s why you put your report cards on it?”
“Yeah,” I say.
I give her a hug because I know the real reason she’s grouchy even before she says “Mr. Devos leaving is STUPID. And I’m writing that in my paper.”
I keep hugging her, wishing as I so often do that the world worked in the black and white way she thinks it should.
The next day, she calls me from school.
“What were you saying again last night, Mama? That yellow painting? Something about… failure and yoga and stuff?”
“Uh huh. I suspected you weren’t listening.”
“Nope. I am now though. What was it?”
So I tell her again about why failures are more important than success, and I plan on telling her over and over, as often as she needs to hear it:
You are not your successes or your failures.