Failure Comes from Not Trying

“I can accept failure.  Everyone fails at something.  But I can’t accept not trying.”  Michael Jordan said that.  “Failing is the polish that makes lumps of coal into diamonds.  Failing etches masterpieces quitters can’t imagine and will never paint because they allow themselves to be victimized by believing they can’t overcome obstacles designed to make them better.”

I’m not sure how many agree, but as my mentor and I have talked, I realized I’ve learned more from my failures than I have from my successes.  In retrospect, looking at today’s ‘trophy’ generation, many of us pause and ask, why do kids have a tendency to devalue things more than we did?  Why is it, they would rather pay to have the car washed than do it themselves?  Or only work until they pay for something they want, then quit that job until they need something else? Why in today’s world, are we so consumed with making people feel good?  Why?

It used to be when children asked the proverbial why do something question, those of us who were busy with work, under a lot of stress and strain that forbade us from quitting life,  would turn to them and say, “Because I said so.”  We cultivated a society that accepted that. Our children moved on. They learned when grown folks were talking, they shut up, listened and learned.  They learned when the rent was due, it got paid.  Moreover, they learned that when their feelings were hurt, somebody generally took the time to find out what was wrong.  Bottom line?  Things were handled.

We had a way to get in touch with each other.  Our feelings were real.  We were told that if we didn’t want to be thought of as being stupid, we needed to get up off our lazy butts and apply ourselves.  Teachers told us the same things.  They were not ashamed to recognize potential and paddle a little ambition into you, or kick your butt out of class if you were making a nuisance of yourself. Today we get so consumed with hurting someone’s feelings we’ll lie in a minute to make them feel good. Feeling good is like a drug with our kids today, so much so society has labeled many of our spoiled brats as the ‘trophy’ generation.  You got up this morning on your own.  Great!  You made poopie in the potty, GREAT!  You going to all your classes and passing them all [barely], super great!  Give me a break!

Have any of you looked at the statistics on how America is doing on the educational ladder.  At one time, we were the leaders with the fewest dropouts.  Now we are in the lower quarter percentile, just one position above Mexico.  In Math and Science, we are near the bottom.  Granted, our children may not be failing, but are they succeeding?  In addition, among those, boys are doing the worst.

Jerome Bruner, a leader in educational reform, once said, “One of the great triumphs of learning…is to get things organized in your head in a way that permits you to know more than you ‘ought’ to.  The concepts take reflection or brooding about what it is that you know.”  So let’s look at what we know. We know self-esteem is important, even Maslow includes this on his hierarchy of needs.  But what does never failing teach us?  Does it teach us we’re always right? If our kids are encouraged to believe lies, how can they distinguish the truth? If we don’t allow them to think for themselves, will they ever learn?   If we allow teachers to think our children can’t think because of the way they pamper them, then we are the fools.

In school, children are being passed to the next level, yet when time comes to pass an exit exam to graduate, they can’t do it.  They complain and protest and parents who can’t stand to see their children suffer or fail join in this indulgent cacophony for independence, which underpins all that, made our school systems a model for other countries.  But what has happened?

Rather than doling out failure, contextualizing it as an opportunity to succeed, we wallow in self-pity, victimization and wounded pride.  Schools turn out more and more functional illiterates and those of us who once valued education will be the ones stuck with the bills. We’ll be paying mortgages we co-signed for because our kids don’t have credit or money. We’ll be paying for insurance premiums none of us can afford because our sons and daughters have too many traffic tickets to get a good rate.  We’ll be buying their medicine or enabling some addiction all because we didn’t say no, or because some talk show guru made us believe if we can just get our kids to feel good about themselves everything will be fine.   Bull!

Things are not fine.  Teen suicide rates are escalating.  Teen pregnancies are on the upswing.  Dropouts, especially among boys are at an all-time high, and young men’s dislike for school is 71% higher than it was 30 years ago.   Much of this is because we have become too permissive, indulgent and afraid to say ‘no.’ So our kids are failing and blame us because we didn’t give them ground rules, curfews or chores.

Children are moving back home so fast one magazine labeled them the boomerang generation.  The fact that many who do go to college, can’t do basic stuff, like balance a check book, wash their own clothes or get up to go to class resulted in another author calling the parents who continue to do all the stuff for their kids ‘helicopter’ parents.  Kids today have no idea what being adult is because many adults won’t let them.  And who do you think they blame?

Remember, as I pontificated at the start, if we want diamonds, polish them. We do that by being tough, adding a little friction.  Give them chores.  Put them on a budget.  Be firm.  Let them know who earns the buck and realize where the buck stops!  If they break a dish while washing it, make them buy another.  If they wreck the car through negligence, take the car away and make them help pay for some if not all the damages.  They may hate you, but they will respect the fact they were treated as someone who could recoup, rebuild, and resume where they left off.  We all want to stand on our own, and it’s first learned at home. That’s where men learn to be fathers.

“It is much easier to help someone, after they first realize they need help…It’s like trying to force feed a baby.  They’ll puke on you every time.”
Doc Fletcher, from “Murder on the Pier,” by Jere Myles, [p. 65]

Archie R. Wortham, PhD
Educator & Writer

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