First, a quick story:
When I was a teacher, I had this student who was failing. I’d given multiple chances to him to re-do things, none of which he took. He failed the class. He came to my office one last time, to argue his points, and then he finished by telling me that clearly, I as his teacher “just didn’t care” about him, and that “teachers never care.” Also, he said, I hadn’t done my job. “It’s your job to motivate me to learn.”
Once the student had left, I held my head in my hands. It was the end of the semester, I was exhausted and wasted and completely wrung out.
A veteran teacher who shared an office with me had heard the whole thing. I was near tears, I was so tired and frustrated. I asked her for help. How could I have convinced this student? How could I have motivated more? How could I have inspired more, inspired him to work harder?
“I think he was manipulating you,” she said, “And I think that students have a right to fail.”
A what? A right to…fail? This hit me like cold water. Wasn’t it my job to make students pass, not fail?
No, she explained–and this was coming from a woman who had been teaching for more than 20 years, who was much beloved by her students, whose desk was showered with thank-you cards at the end of the semester. This was, instead, about boundaries–me, needing to have boundaries with students. I could outline the subject clearly, and intervene often to course-correct, but I couldn’t “motivate” someone to learn, as this student had said. And sometimes, the best learning came from failure.
“Kate, you are a good teacher,” she said, as though the matter were now to be closed. “You told him what he needed to do, in order to pass. He didn’t do it, several times. He has a right to fail. Let them–students–make their choices.” Then she turned back to her work.
* * *
Often, when people fail, they just throw up their hands and stop trying. They blame other people. They quit and then they say, “You weren’t inspiring enough; you didn’t motivate me.”
Motivation, though? It’s an inside job. You’ve got to be looking for the inspiration. You’ve got to be cultivating your internal motivation, creating the conditions for it. And… you don’t get anywhere by blaming someone else and then rolling over and saying that there’s no point in trying.*
I have learned that failure is a gift only because I was lucky enough to have people in my life who pointed this out to me (sometimes, over and over, when I absolutely did not want to hear it).
So in case you haven’t had those people in your life…there’s this:
Failure isn’t the be-all, end-all, of your existence.
Failure is okay.
You have a right to fail.
You have a right to respond to failure in any way that you choose.
It’s courageous to face our failures and decide to learn from them. No one likes doing it. That’s the tricky thing about navigating failure: it just absolutely sucks to do and you’re very human if you would prefer to avoid doing it.
But at the end of the day, it’s what creating success depends on. Failure will happen, inevitably. So how will you respond?