Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.Winston S. Churchill
I received an email yesterday morning from a client whose children have disappointed her because she and her husband are highly intelligent and very accomplished, but her young son is in the bottom learning percentile in his school, and her daughter is ‘clumsy, unmotivated, and not an A student’. I know both her children well. Her son is a smiling and ever-cheerful lad who is kind, polite and loyal. He gives everything his best, and he is well liked by his friends and teachers. Her daughter is sensitive, excruciatingly shy, artistic and has a vivid imagination. I can see that the girl’s anxiety and shyness hold her back, and that she is always worried about not being good enough. My client wanted advice on ‘how to change her children from failures to winners’. (And yes, she knows I am writing this blog!)
Her email reminded me of a young boy I met at a local cafe a few years ago. As I ate breakfast at a large communal table, a little boy pulled out one of his homework books to show his father. “Look, Dad,” he said, “I came third in maths.” His dad gave him a big hug and replied, “Well done, I am SO proud of you.”
While the father went to the counter to buy a coffee the little boy said to me, “I will never beat Alison. She’s the best in the whole school at maths. Maths used to be my worst subject and now I’m good at it.” Then he smiled shyly and said, “Alison’s dreamy.”
Here was a boy who was proud to have improved even though he wasn’t the best, and who was happy to acknowledge someone else as being more talented than him. His story has always stuck with me.
I listened to the radio yesterday, for coverage of the presidential election in America. They played an interview with a well-known motivational speaker who was discussing the psychology of winning. He said “I won’t accept failure. Failure is for losers. Winning is everything. If you want to succeed get that fixed in your head. Winning. Is. Everything. It’s the only thing that matters. Second place is all about being the first loser. Everything after first is irrelevant.”
Every time I hear someone say that winning is everything something inside me screams in objection. What about kindness? What about ethics and values? What about friendship, and doing the right thing? And trying your best? Are they less important than winning at all costs?
Was that little boy in the coffee shop a failure? I hardly think so.
As I went about my day, I kept thinking about this obsession we have with needing to win and be the best at everything, and that nothing else can ever be good enough. It’s what I was thinking about last night, as I contemplated my client and her ‘disappointing’ children.
I was no stranger to failure as a child. I dreaded school sports days most of all. As I doggedly ran along in my lane, other kids would streak past me, and I was almost always resoundingly, shamefully, embarrassingly last.
What did that failure teach me? A few things actually.
- I am not a good runner.
- I might not be a good runner, but I can still be a team player. Every runner earned a point for their house, though the first, second and third place getters amassed many more. Still, a point is a point, and I could do something to help my team.
- I learned courage and perseverance. I hated running, I hated being last, but I didn’t quit, and that still counted. Hey, I even got cheered for finishing! (Sad but true.)
- No matter how hard I tried, I never got any better at running. I learned to be a gracious loser, and to appreciate those with greater skills and talents than me.
- Losing made me look for things where I might be able to excel, and eventually I found out that I could swim!
Thomas Edison is famous for his quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” By his definition, failure can be a road to eventual success if you keep sticking at something, learning from each failure as you go. That’s been true for me. I have usually learned my biggest lessons from my failures.
And what else does failure teach us? We learn that life isn’t always fair. We learn that we don’t always get what we want. We learn the value of trying our best. We begin to find resilience, and backbone. We find humour and the ability to problem solve, and to ask for help. We learn to get back up when life has knocked us down. We learn self-respect and courage. We learn to risk and to move outside our comfort zone. We learn that there are things in life we need to walk away from, and other things where we need to stick with it, and believe in ourselves and our dreams.
We learn not to quit when something really matters to us, and to use failure to propel us on to success. And if we encounter failure early, we are not so frightened or overwhelmed by it as we become older.
Failure prepares us for life. Success is always built upon failure – it is our greatest teacher.
So the question we really need to ask ourselves is not whether we are prepared to fail, but, after having failed, are we prepared to get back up and try again?
My client’s children may well be failing in some areas of their lives, but I know they have experienced success in others. We cannot win at everything we do. It’s not always about winning – it’s also about values, and character, and a life well lived. The mum who wrote me that email? Her children attend an elite and highly competitive primary school and she was feeling judged by other parents, stressed about her children’s schooling, and thought she was failing as a parent. We got that sorted out. She’s going to move her kids to the local school – a small school just down the road from their house that is known for being friendly, caring and inclusive.
Every day is a chance to run a new race, to create a new outcome, to learn from our mistakes and to improve ourselves.
Love, kindness and gentle encouragement, Nicole xx