The Importance of Failure

Most of us grew up reading stories like Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mocking Bird, or The Giver. As kids, we related to these stories more than most because they are coming of age tales following characters on their difficult journey into adulthood. When it boils down to it, we are each the protagonist of our very own coming of age tale, and the road to adulthood we all must take is paved by a thousand failures.

As kids, we had no choice but to fail repeatedly to come to an understanding of why things are the way they are and why they must be done a certain way. However hard that process was, in our adulthood we look back and realize that we never really stopped failing, we only grew thicker skin, learned to accept our failures and let them do their daily work in us. That being said, there is no shortage of irony surrounding the imbedded urge in the parental instinct to protect one’s child from failure.

What parent doesn’t cringe as they watch their child procrastinate a school project and leave for the bus with a half-marked poster board? Is it more painful for the child learning to ride a bike to fall and skin their knee than it is for the parent trotting beside them, knowing they must let go?

Life is a funny thing and humans, even funnier. We live through our thousand foundational failures, taste humiliation, labor to recover and rebound, and when we finally feel solid on our own two feet, we forget that it was failure that got us there. We find ourselves trying to protect our children from life’s hard knocks, but there is no way around it. Failing is the most necessary aspect of human development.

If you don’t believe me, look at a child whose parents shielded them from failure. They sent them to bed and finished the school project for them. They rarely said no and paid any expense to keep them happy and protect them from disappointment. They blindly followed that nagging parental instinct, and in the end, a teenager is standing in front of them, arms folded, believing that discomfort is unnatural, that they are a victim of bad circumstance, and that if they struggle, it is because someone else failed to do something.

I can only speak for myself as the little hellraiser that I was, but in my childhood, I needed a foundation of strict, unbending rules to teach me that there were some things in this world that wouldn’t change just because I wanted them to. I also equally needed the gracious advice of my parents to suggest the things that I aught to do that would make me more happy.

However, no one could tell me that all these things were true. I had to test the fences and get zapped to find out for myself. More than anything, I needed parents with the self-control to let me get zapped so I could learn one life lesson after another.

In today’s society, it’s apparent that looking back on a list of one’s failures is a load-bearing task. There is such a thick fog of negativity around it that it completely disarms the ability to make future failures constructive. Whether your glass is half full or half empty will directly effect whether the big blunder of the day is just another humiliation for the list or a lasting lesson to live by from that moment on.

I don’t believe the English language has a word for the way I feel when I think back on all my failures. I think the closest translation would be, a fond, cringing nostalgia.