General Question

cak's avatar

Why is failure viewed as a bad thing to experience?

Asked by cak (15858points) March 12th, 2009

It’s been discussed on fluther and other social websites. It’s discussed by parents, in regards to their children. I know some teenagers that are afraid of any form of failure. I have friends that will not allow their children to participate in certain events – to prevent the possibility of failure, which I find completely absurd.

My sister is afraid to fail, at anything. To avoid this, she will not tackle challenging tasks so that she doesn’t have to face failure. She has vowed never to marry again, because her marriage ended in divorced.

I’ve failed at many things; however, I tried to use those failures as tools to improve in the future. I don’t like failing, it sucks – but it’s a part of life.

Why is failure viewed as a bad thing and not as a learning tool? In regards to children, shouldn’t we teach them how to handle failure, not to prevent them from ever experiencing failure? Does failure paralyze you from moving forward?

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28 Answers

Les's avatar

Because it feels terrible to fail. Many people can’t handle failure after failure, because it gives them a feeling of incompetence or unimportance. I’m in grad school, I know all about failure, and it is no fun. Some people are able to rationalize their failure, and learn from it, but others find that harder to do.

aprilsimnel's avatar

Does failure paralyze you from moving forward? It has. I’m only beginning to learn to change that mindset now after years of being taught (and believing) that “If you can’t do it perfectly the first time, then don’t do it at all!” I was also taught that failure marked you as a person, not that it was just an indication that there was something you hadn’t yet learned how to do competently – and that that failure, that mark, went on your permanent life record, never to be erased. It feels awful just to type that out. And it’s not true. It’s such a perfectionist society that we live in.

How is anyone supposed to do everything perfectly right from the starting gate? How is that supposed to happen? I don’t know, and I don’t understand it either.

dynamicduo's avatar

I, like you, do not view failure as being the end-all be-all. I learn from my failures so as to hopefully not make the same mistake again.

Failure never paralyzes me from taking a stab at anything. I think this is because, in part, I really don’t care about anyone else’s opinion, so failure boils down to me thinking I have failed, and since my mentality is not this mentality, failure does not critically wound me. Sure it smarts at times, and I will still remember my B- mark on my big final project in university (to me that’s a failure, relative to my other grades but mostly relative to the amount of work and effort I put into it). But in a sense even that “failure” is something I’ve learned from – I’ve learned that that B- plays no part in my actual life whatsoever, and that ultimately school grades are meaningless, what matters most is that you try and keep trying when things seem bleak and unobtainable.

Now, getting down to why people embrace failure, such as your sister… this is a tough thing to debate as it extends into self-confidence and we don’t really know exactly why some people are confident and some are not (there are a lot of contributors, such as one’s parents views [encouraging or discouraging]). Personally, I feel TV/media plays a big impact here. As with many areas, television/movies/books portray events as being spectacular and obtainable, and failure is never really encountered other than to be surpassed and beaten finally. Very few media revolve around a character failing and learning from it, and not succeeding in the end. As well, perhaps some people watch TV and movies where characters fail but succeed in the end, assume that their lives will play out the same, and are discouraged when their failure causes them to fail instead of succeed.

cak's avatar

@aprilsimnel – I grew up in a mixed message household. My mom expected perfection, my dad he wanted our best, but said it might not always be perfect. He also reminded us, frequently, that we didn’t learn how to walk overnight, why expect to do it right and perfect, the very first time. I took my dad’s lesson to heart and that is generally how I view things.

Failure does hurt – a lot! Society doesn’t allow for failure, but yet it’s all around us. I’m glad that you are starting to see things on the other side. :)

@ Les – It’s too bad that people do have those feelings attached to failure. It makes me wonder what they are not doing, because of the fear of failing.

kevinhardy's avatar

it hurts, it hurts even worse when it is done to you repeatedly, when people view you as a life failure, what are suppose to do accept it, nope find a way to be a winner, what do you do , fall and fall agian? only god can helps us.

cak's avatar

@dynamicduo – I do think you are right about media and what it does to shape our opinion about failing at something – I wish they would show more of real life situations. People fail at things, it happens.

I worry about my daughter’s view on success and failure. I see some of that fear of failure in her, especially when it comes to her grades. She’s competitive and wants those straight a’s each grading period. Projects are the same, anything less than an A makes her cringe. Her dad (my ex) complains when she gets less than an A – we try our best to counteract what he says – in a productive way. We tell her we expect her best effort, we don’t demand perfect grades.

@kevinhardy – I guess, yes. Sometimes I have failed, over and over – but I do try again. It’s not easy and I don’t like the sting.

EmpressPixie's avatar

I hate, hate, hate failing. It sucks. But! I just used probably one of my biggest failures in life as the fodder for a really good grad school essay.

I think failure is bad in the moment—it sucks and I usually mope for a while. But overall, it’s good for experience. You will fail eventually and learning how to deal with that disappointment gracefully and limit fallout is hugely important.

elijah's avatar

When my son played T-ball they didn’t keep score. The pee-wee football team didn’t keep score. When those kids come off the field, they know who won. They keep score in their heads. In the real world there are things that you are good at and things you have to work hard at. I don’t want my kids to be sore losers. They know that the important thing is to try your best. If you lose, so what. You congratulate the other team and you practice harder the next week and you try again.
When it comes to grades, I think the kids who freak out about getting a bad one are the ones who get too much pressure at home. If my kid gets a bad grade, we talk about why it happened and how the grade can be brought up. If the grade is bad because they skipped homework or chose not to study, they lose privledges. If the grade is bad but they tried really hard, I tell them that it’s ok to not be good at everything. The important thing is to make an effort and do your best.

cak's avatar

@EmpressPixie hi! excellent point and great use of a failure. Very healthy attitude – I think I’ll pass this one along to my daughter.

@elijahsuicide – I have to say I was glad to see the teams in my son’s league keep score, again. Also, he’s not on the winning team – they were lucky (last season) to win 3 games, they’re in the 5yr old range – those boys had a great time, though. They had a great coach that wouldn’t tolerate poor sportsmanship. My son’s horns sprouted after one game and we pointed out that it took the entire team to lose the game – it isn’t just one child that loses a game. He got upset and asked if we were calling him a loser, we both bristled at the thought! We told him no, we just wanted him to understand that he can’t blame a loss on one person, especially since it is a team sport. It showed me that my generally easy going son needed guidance on how to accept failure and we have continued to work on that lesson.

I think people are so afraid of hurting someone’s feelings that we’ve stopped teaching how to accept – and gracefully, as EmpressPixie pointed out, failure.

SeventhSense's avatar

@cak
I’ll never forget a professor I had who was so insanely attached to having an interpretation of a work of art which could not be challenged. When someone offered an alternative well conceived difference of opinion he was openly hostile. I think it was a deeply rooted and learned behavior on his part; occasionally an acerbic slip about his mother would emerge. Of course it was sad and funny to me after a while.
Another example was one of my students. As a teacher you often catch little ones acting out and on this occasion I clearly saw this little boy who didn’t think I was there, throw a spitball at another student. When I confronted him on it, he vehemently objected. When finally he realized that I saw him directly do it and there was no question he was not accountabe he nearly broke down. The idea that he had failed me was so overwhelming to him. I of course reasssured him that it was ok and gave him a “slap on the wrist”. I think the psychological fears, punishment, social status and maybe some primitive responses that are hard wired into us drive this fear of being wrong.

cak's avatar

@SeventhSense – Wow. I never thought about the possibility of it being a primitive response – good point!

SeventhSense's avatar

Yes well think about it In a hunter gatherer society if you could not contribute to the tribe in a valuable way you may have actually starved to death. And that’s pretty scary.

Alyanna's avatar

I agree completely Cak. We’ve tried to teach Izzy that it’s okay to fail – what’s important is getting up, dusting yourself off, and trying again.

I wanted to share one of my favorite song lines (from “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz ):
“I reckon it’s again my turn to win some or learn some”
I think that line is a perfect example of what we’re trying to teach.

ubersiren's avatar

My son is just a year and a half and loves to build with blocks. When his tower gets too tall and topples over, he usually gets excited and says, “Boom!” I think it’s because he knows it’s just as fun to build it as it is to strive to be as tall as he wants it to be. More recently he seems to be getting more frustrated when his tallest buildings fall. And I assume that’s because he’s starting to realize that he’s invested a lot of time into those extra tall towers, only to have it destroyed. I just keep reminding him that the “boom!” is fun too.

wundayatta's avatar

You can’t fail unless someone tells you you’ve failed. Usually that person is someone else, but as @ubersiren points out, it could be you telling yourself that you’ve failed. Still, I think that the internal feedback (what we tell ourselves) does more about what others have said failure does: shows us we’ve made a mistake, and there’s a problem to be solved.

However, when someone else tells you you’ve failed, what can you do? You can’t know why they think you’ve failed. You can know what they tell you, but that might not be accurate, and they might be lying, or they might be misguided. Designation of failure is an opinion. Usually someone else’s opinion. Opinion is opinion. It becomes right or wrong depending upon what other people think. If someone tells you you’ve failed, and you believe them, you may stop doing whatever it is you were doing, and the world may lose a brilliant doer of that thing.

Last night I heard a story about Benjamin Zander, a conductor and musician. His biography says that, at the age of nine, he became a protege of Benjamin Britten. Well, not so fast. In an interview on The World last night, he told more of the story. It seems that he had written a piece—maybe for school; maybe for a competion—and someone looked at it, and said it was worthless crap.

His mother, being an immigrant and not understanding the ways of the British, nevertheless sent the piece to Benjamin Britten. His opinion was the same, and different. Yeah, it was crap, but it was also brilliant—for a nine-year-old. He took Zander under his wing, and Zander blossomed. Were it not for a fluke and an ignorant mother who didn’t know she had been beat, Zander may well have given up composing.

There are tons of stories of writers who send manuscripts to publisher after publisher, up to forty or fifty, and finally someone publishes the novel and it becomes a huge success. For every one of those writers, I’ll bet there are 20, just as good, who give up sending out the story just before they get to the one who will publish them.

It’s just opinion, and opinion can be wrong, but it also has huge power. It can turn success into failure, and it can teach a perfectly talented person that they are a failure. Some people, of course, can overcome these criticisms, and become successful. Far more, I believe, believe the criticism, and give up, when, with a little encouragement, the world could have gained another talented whatever.

So that’s the downside of failure. Is there any upside? I suppose there are some people who should fail, but they will fail anyway. It seems to me that taking the opposite approach, and encouraging everyone, the so-called talentless as well as the so-called talented, is much more likely to keep people working at it, and will result in far more good work than identifying people as failures.

As others have said, some failures use failure to learn, and do something better. Everyone has failures of this kind. There’s a difference between screwing up, and failing. A failure is catastrophic, like the Columbia. A screw-up can be fixed. To be labeled a failure is disastrous for a person.

Encouragement does not mean withholding criticism. Everyone screws up. The issue is balancing the encouragement with the constructive criticism. That’s a different balance for every person, but, in my opinion, it is far better to err on the side of encouragement than it is on failure.

Once people have the idea that they are failures in their head, there is no rooting it out. No amount of success can root it out. You could be Jesus and still believe you are a failure. Personally, I think we should do anything we can to avoid turning people into failures. We lose far too much in the process. And if we coddle a few people who don’t deserve it—that’s a pretty small price to pay.

ubersiren's avatar

@daloon : All that you just said is part of my life’s philosophy. I want to grab your assvatar. Also, I can’t believe you wrote that whole thing.

Jeruba's avatar

For a moving talk on the benefits of failure, listen to J.K. Rowling’s commencement address at Harvard (2008). The text is readiliy available online, including at this link, but if you can play the video, do.

SeventhSense's avatar

@Jeruba
Listened to the whole video/speech..inspiring.

cak's avatar

@Daloon – I see your point; however, I wonder if you equate being told something fails as belittling someone. I had this response typed out and my computer froze…I’m too lazy to type it all over again.

I agree, on some levels with you; however, I am not one to coddle people. I think it handicaps a person, instead of teaching them how to deal with something and how to move beyond those obstacles. In the case of teaching children about failure and how to handle failure, I almost think to not prepare them for the possibility of failure and how to overcome those shortcomings in life, is almost to send a child out into the world unprepared. I don’t mean that one should stand over them berating them, but disarm the negative connotation of the word failure. Teach them what it is and how to deal with those situations and/or how to help others deal with those situations.

The danger comes in labeling someone as a failure or labeling the event as a failed event. Calling someone a failure is damaging, I completely agree. Saying something failed to meet expectations and giving direction and encouragement – to me, that is a positive way to handle something.

cak's avatar

@Jeruba – Very inspiring! Thank you for the link. :)

cak's avatar

@everyone – thank you for you input – I appreciate it very much.

NaturalMineralWater's avatar

Yeah. What they said.

cak's avatar

@NaturalMineralWater – you made me laugh…lurve! :)

NaturalMineralWater's avatar

@cak xD well it was such a great question that I was anxious to answer.. but they had all done so well already.. couldn’t top it =)

augustlan's avatar

Cak, my oldest daughter could be the poster child for perfectionism. The girl stresses so much over her grades, and will not tolerate anything less than an A. Her father and I have never pressured her to keep her grades up, she just seems hard-wired that way. My other children care about their grades, too… but not to that degree. Maybe it’s a ‘first-born’ trait?

augustlan's avatar

@Jeruba Excellent speech… thanks for linking us to it.

SherlockPoems's avatar

I think it is natural to try and protect our children from all adversities BUT I don’t consider failing at most anything as an adversity. Like you, I think of failure as a learning process… not depressing but a great way to learn to look back with some objectivity and reason out the ‘why’ of the failure. Then go about making the necessary corrections to make it work the next time. I think it is true of school, sports, relationships… well just about everything. There are some things that are ‘mistakes’ and not failure and I think many confuse the two. Seems to me that so long as you try to do your best… you will not ‘fail’ because you will learn… that’s always a win!

ratboy's avatar

Your failure justifies everyone’s perception of you as a loser.

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