What You Must Teach Your Students about Failure

by Guy E. White on 4 November, 2014

Why are American teachers afraid of allowing kids to fail?

I’m part of the self-esteem generation. Since age 5, each motivational poster on every school wall gave me rainbow unicorn pride injections: government issued self-esteem installed! At school, failure was not an option. When I got into the real world, life fell apart.

A t-shirt that I’ve seen walking around my campus lately says, “Failure is Not An Option.” The kid wearing it is probably 15 years old.

My reaction to t-shirts like this echoes what I feel about the rest of the way the American school system seems to relate to failure: a feeling of a cringing sadness.

My first year of University, I woke up mid-morning and walked down to my mailbox at the dorm to find a yellow envelope with my name on it handwritten. This thing had been delivered by campus mail.

I had not checked my mailbox in a week or two, so this was a pleasant find – until I opened it and read, “Your Academic Probation Hearing is scheduled for Wednesday at 10am.”

I thought to myself, “Today is a Wednesday,” right as I looked up at the clock and it said 9:53am. TODAY was my hearing. I was in my pajamas, and instantly I was running down the road toward the academic affairs office in my slippers.

Needless to say, I was able to stay at this University, but only after transferring to a different major in a different section of the school. I had failed in a way that I had never failed before, but life changed for the better because of it.


Here is what I learn from failure, and what your students should learn too:

1. Failure Is a Wake Up Call

Life can feel stable and good until failure wakes us up. Have you had the experience of a failure waking you up to the need for change to happen? Sometimes, without failure, there can be no change.

I always share with my students that failure is a chance to see or relate to something in our life in a new way. It’s an invitation to something grand – not the end of the line.

2. Failure Is Where the Gold Is

A life played safe will result in few failures. A life played entirely safe will also result in many, many disappointments. There is more out there than a life without failure can offer.

Failure can lead to great love. Failure can lead to great riches. Failure can lead to a change in your world.

Failure can lead to you changing the world.

I tell students to treat their failures with as much (if not more) love as their accomplishments. Failures are worth owning.

3. Failure is a Reminder To Be Mindful

Failure produces wake up moments, where we notice things in a fresher light than before.

Failure is also an opportunity to see the value in being aware of our steps as we take them, rather than arriving at an unwanted destination and saying, “Wow, how the heck did I get here.”

So, failure is actually an invitation to live life more fully, all the time.

How’s that for loving failure? What do you think? What would you add to this list?

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