The Big Difference Between Fail-ing and Fail-ure

By AJ Juliani, 11 comments

My daughter lowered her eyes, looked at me, and said, “I can’t do it.”

I looked back and asked her again to put one foot on the board, push off with her other foot, and then put that foot on the board when she was moving.

She was being a typical six-year-old who was trying to learn how to ride a skateboard.

“No”, she said. “I’m not doing this anymore. Can you push me?”

It would have been easy for me to help her get both feet on the board and give her a push to get her started. But I had already done that, and now after guiding her through the process (and almost falling myself while demonstrating) it was time for her to keep trying if she wanted to make any progress.

I told her “no” and asked for her to try again, this time focusing on getting a good push so she could be moving when she put her foot back on the board.

She was visibly upset. She knew that I could help her out. I knew that I could help her out. But in her mind, she didn’t see the bigger picture. She didn’t realize that only by trying (and failing) herself, would she ever be able to ride a skateboard without my help.

The Problem With the Term “Failure”

It would be easy to say that this situation is why we need failure in our schools. In real life, we try something, it doesn’t work out, we mess up, and we have to keep on moving.

Yet, as George Couros (The Innovator’s Mindset) points out on his blog, failure is not necessarily something to be celebrated:

I totally understand what educators are saying when they talk about “failure” and our thoughts are on the same wavelength.  That being said, the narrative of what teachers actually do is misconstrued by our public when we use the term.  Most of the people that I know that defend this term do everything in their power to NOT be failures and since they are educators, that means they do everything to instill “resiliency” and “grit” into their students as well.  Do they (or their students) fall? Absolutely.  But the story should not be about “falling”, it is about what we instill in our students to make sure they get back up.  That is what we need to share.

I know our recent culture of startups and innovation has talked about embracing failure, and I get it.

But Fail-ure has a finality to it.

Fail-ing is all about the process.

What we really want for our students is not for them to fail, but as George points out above, for them to get back up and try again. We want them to revise and iterate based on what they learned from failing, all on a path to real success.

I often show this video below when I speak to showcase the difference between fail-ure and fail-ingHe does not give up when he fails. He does not stop trying. Instead, he learns from each mistake and iterates till he gets closer and closer to success.

*Note: I usually play it on mute because it has some language 🙂

All About the Failing

After we finished our short back and forth conversation, my daughter hopped on the skateboard and took off down our driveway. She got both feet on the skateboard and was moving fast. Then, almost like out of a movie, she tried to stop and flew off the back of the board.

I tried to play off the fall by congratulating her.

“Great job getting both feet on the board!”

It didn’t help. She was upset, and blamed me for the fall off the board (which was partially true). But the next day she was back on the board now trying to figure out how to stop.

Learning, it seems, is contagious.

As long as we let them go through the entire process and support along the way as best we can, failing is not a bad thing.

Failure, on the other hand, doesn’t include grit, resiliency, and the can-do attitude that make learning contagious.

It’s a small change to a powerful word, but I hope it is one we can look at through a learner’s eyes. Here’s to failing your way to success, and never adding the “ure” to the end of that word!

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