CAN YOU TEACH SOMEONE NOT TO FAIL?April 26, 2013
SINCE writing my last post about failure I've read writer and broadcaster Sarah Macdonald's own post on the very same All About W...
SINCE writing my last post about failure I've read writer and broadcaster Sarah Macdonald's own post on the very same All About Women panel discussion and Marcus Westbury's post on his own failings and failures. Marcus and I attended many of the same lectures in our respective bid to gain a degree in communication from the University of Newcastle, so it was interesting to read his take on that time and the impact of one of life’s significant failures – failing at your studies.
In fact, it’s this formative idea of failure that I am interested in. When I was a student the notion of failure was very real, as were the consequences. I can remember children were held back years and lost to the group of peers who progressed to the next year level. Report cards home were clearly graded and there was no ambiguity between an A, through to a D and the unmistakable F. Teachers had no qualms about pointing out your failings and if memory serves me, there always seemed more evidence of these than any of my admirable qualities.
“Could do better” was a common report card comment, echoed by parents who tsk tsk’d if there was even so much as a B-.
Now, I'm not going to pretend I was a dunce. I wasn't I was a bright student and I liked my studies but failure here wasn't something I was familiar with. Those lessons came by way of life and I defy any parent to tell me they've had an easy road of it: success all the way. Hmmm, didn’t think so.
I was though, I think, a reasonably resilient and independent individual, well supported by my parents and the adult influences around me to test myself and have a go. But the question I have been asking myself, and peers and colleagues of the same age, is whether we were just the last of a generation that had to create our own pathways in life, and that meant ‘having a go’, or whether the pathways in life were so much simpler then than they are today.
I am watching my own brood get on with life and one of the four has understood her path in life and moved toward it easily and without any real fear it was not the path or that it could fail. The others have struggled to make those decisions in life, and I do wonder, both for them and others I see making those steps toward independence, what part fear has played in that.
So, the question is, does failure have to do with a rather large presence of fear? If so, the converse must be that success is to do with being brave. Hmmmm.
But how brave and can we teach it? Is it possible to give children an understanding of the difference between real fear and real courage? Does it have to be learned as a young person, or is it okay to come to it later in life?
I recall, halfway up a very tall mast on the sail training ship The Young Endeavour, on a cold, windy and wet night being yelled at from the deck. Against the wind and rain I heard: “don’t worry, fear makes you hold on tighter”. No shit Sherlock. I was holding on to that mast with all I had and wondering why an inland girl thought tall ship sailing was something she should ‘have a go’ at. It took me years of applying for a berth and saving my pennies to make the voyage and here I was, quite literally at half-mast and pondering my imminent death.
Calls from the deck were supposed to be encouraging but in my freaked out mind I was thinking holding on tight was neither going to get me to a height of the mast where I could start wrenching the sail in, nor get me down. I was, despite the assurances of my crew members, going to have to let go and I did. I let go, I climbed, I hauled and then I got myself down, shaking like a leaf and near to passing out once I hit the deck. I wasn't the only one. It took three of us to get the sail in and we were white-faced but, in the face of adversity, we had triumphed.
It took courage and, yes, fear, to get the job done but one had to override the other. Courage won out. Did I learn anything? I think I did: to let go. Could I have studied that? Could it have been delivered to me in a curriculum designed to extract a fair and measurable result from all?
Can success be graded? Really?