Success can be and is defined in many ways. We don’t (as a general rule) like failure as human beings, and our school systems certainly have a low tolerance for failure. Yet failure is not only a pre-requisite for creativity, it is also required for “success” in virtually every context. This Michael Jordan advertisement for Nike is now at least three years old, but it still hits the mark communicating this point about failure and success in just 30 seconds.

H/T to Carol Broos for this link.

In his May 9, 2009, post “Failure Should Always Be an Option,” Jim Klein wrote:

What we must never forget, no matter what circumstances are forced upon us, is that without failure, there is no success. We learn when we fail. We grow when we fall. Science is all about learning from failure, and failure is a key component of innovation, without which nothing would ever be tried.

This is especially true when it comes to technology. While we may pretend that there is truly such a thing as a “digital native”, the reality is that kids are not more familiar with or better with technology as a result of their proximity to it. What they possess is a complete lack of fear, a willingness to try, fail, and try again – to innovate, explore, and discover. Often they achieve their goals, sometimes, they don’t, but that’s OK because the value of the exercise is in the process, not the result. There is more critical thinking and problem solving in one failed experiment than a thousand standardized tests.

Jim also shared the video “Famous Failures” in that post as well. As the video author says, “life = risk. If you’ve never failed, you’ve never lived.”

I remember at the Air Force Academy we had to memorize something called “the five dynamics of goal setting.” I don’t remember all of them, and I may not be remembering these word for word, but the ones I can still remember are:

  1. Set high but achievable goals.
  2. Be realistic.
  3. Expect frustration *
  4. Persevere despite frustration.

I think it is important as we think about failure, success, creativity, schools, our own lives and the leadership we provide for others in our schools and communities, we should remember to also focus on DISCIPLINE as well as PERSEVERANCE. It’s not enough to point out that people like Michael Jordan failed a lot. It’s critical to see and understand they chose to live with discipline and persevere despite the frustrations in their lives, and that the lives which they have lived are therefore as much a result of their CHOICES as they are their genetic gifts or environment.

Life is hard. It is filled with frustration. Yet for those who persevere and choose to remain disciplined in the face of a world that may seem at times set against them, s/he can realize “success” unexpected in common hours. My verbiage here comes from a favorite philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote:

I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Our definitions of “success” may evolve and change over our lifetimes, but our need to regard failure as a necessary, critical part of our learning journey will persist. Sharing videos like those above with our students can help them understand these ideas about success and failure. Encouraging others to persist in the pursuit of their dreams, despite the obstacles which stand in their way, is one of the most important roles we can play in the lives of our students as their teachers.

* Thanks to Mark McEahern for reminding me (via email) of “Expect frustration” in the USAFA-taught dynamics of goal setting. If you remember the others, please let me know!

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