The Most Practical Life Skill Ever

November 14, 2011

Have you ever had the sneaking suspicion…

…that you’re failing at something?

If you have, great news!  I think we’ve all been there.  You just get the sense that you’re just bailing water out of some part of your ship to keep it afloat.  No, I can’t help bail you out, because I’m using my bucket to bail myself out.  Maybe that’s great news to you, maybe not.

When I was a kid, the adults just started getting on this kick about telling us that we were all “winners,” no matter how badly we performed.  Some kids bought into it (the kids who would’ve otherwise been “failures,” no doubt.)  And that thinking has grown and grown into a sea of participation ribbons and neutered school playgrounds.  Everyone feels special inside the cocoon of childhood.

This weekend, I spent a lot of time thinking about failure, and little league, and video games and Jesus, and I figured out a few new things that we all need to know when we feel like failures.

Was Jesus a Failure?

It’s never a good feeling to realize you’re probably failing.  What are you afraid you’re failing at today?  Your job?  Parenting?  A Test?  Paying the bills?  Loving your spouse?  Talking to a friend?  Confronting an addiction?  Launching a dream?  Running a business?  Writing a blog?  Getting healthy?  Showing compassion?  Forgiving someone?  The possibilities for failure seem endless.

I wonder if Jesus ever failed at anything.  Do you think he was a successful carpenter?  I think he would’ve had to have been.  What’s less likely, that a Jewish rabbi was actually the Son of God, or that a Jewish rabbi pretended to be the Son of God because he was a failure at business?  The Bible has some stories that are hard to believe, but not that preposterous.

No Participation Ribbon

It’s one thing for the realization to dawn on you that you are failing.  If that happens, we can always ignore it.  Or live in denial.  Or tell ourselves that we’re doing our best.  Something to convince ourselves that we are still “special” and a winner.

But it’s entirely another thing to be confronted by your shortcomings, for someone else to make crystal clear to you that you suck.  Your boss chews you out.  Your kids get in trouble.  You get an F.  The final notice comes in the mail.  Your spouse files for divorce.  Your photo winds up online with the word FAIL.

Last week, it happened to me at work.  I was told I was failing (in a Christian “God bless you” way).  It didn’t feel good.  I wasn’t given a participation ribbon and told that I’m still a winner.  No one tried to save my self esteem.  There was no pizza party afterward.

The funny thing was, I was surprised that it took that long for someone to confirm what I had suspected for a couple of months: that in one specific part of my job, I was not cutting it.  My boat is slowly taking on water, and if the leak is not plugged, I will drown.

The other funny thing was how, well…freeing it felt to have someone say out loud to me what I could not, that there are tasks I’ve taken on that I’m not built for, that I’m not good enough, not smart enough, and gosh darn it, people don’t like me enough to let me go on failing.  No, I didn’t get fired.  My job needs some significant re-calibration.

Learning to Fail

And that brings me back to the playground.  Adults believe kids are so fragile, that the word “lose” and “fail” have practically been removed from childhood vocabulary.

What do kids learn from competition that is really important?  Most kids won’t grow up to be pro ball players.  So what will kids learn that they will actually use as adults?

They learn how to fail.

They learn how to cope with failure, to try again, to not blame others more than themselves, to understand that failure is a universal law of nature.  By saving their sweet little self esteems, we’re only setting kids up for crashes when they become adults and feel the sting of defeat for the first time.

I think kids instinctively know that the adults are full of it, though.  Kids spend more time than ever playing video games, much to the chagrin of most adults.  What practical skills could they possibly be learning, you ask?  How to shoot aliens and make out with hot alien babes?  Love or hate the games, they’re learning how to fail, dozens and dozens of times, for hours on end, and keep persisting at a challenge.

28 responses to The Most Practical Life Skill Ever

  1. Hi Matt,

    To hear that you failed at something gladens my heart. I say, “Thank God the guy isn’t good at everything”!

    So, now I feel better.

    Thank you for failing at something. You had me worried there for a while. When I compare the success of your blog–20, 30, 80 comments–while I am typing my postings on air with few reading and hardly anybody commenting, I feel like giving up. And you virtually always have things of substance to say and my writing just generates froth, well hearing that you did not excel at something comforts and encourages me.

    Or, maybe I’m just being a crab in the bucket.

    Here if Florida if you’re out fishing and want to keep your crabs in the bucket, you just put another crab in there with him. It is the nature of crabs that when one begins to climb over the side of the bucket to escape, the other crabs will pull him back down.

    Reminds me of church somehow.

    Sometimes I think I’ve been fed a line.

    “God will provide”–but sometimes, He doesn’t.

    “God wants you to prosper”–but then neither one of us is getting what He wants.

    “There’s healing in the atonement”–but I remain in pain.

    “In all things we are more than conquerors”–Guy who wrote that must have hit his head on a plank in that shipwreck.

    Sure, most of the Bible guys were Superheros Of Faith, more successful than Spiderman. Abraham, David, Solomon, Gideon, Joshua–guys who got it done and prospered big time.

    Then there was Job, Samson, and Joseph–who failed for a time but came out on top in the end.

    Maybe that’s the secret about failure and success, about winning and losing–we live on election night. The votes are being counted. Not all precincts have reported. All the returns are not in yet.

    Matt, I’m glad you did not lose your job; I’m sorry you had to go through this bad patch, but that’s all it is, a bad patch.


    Thanks for listening.

    John Cowart

  2. Yea for video games! You are right though about kids not really caring about “participation” ribbons. And yes, when kids make mistakes or goof up, they know it no matter how much we say “nice try.”

  3. What am I failing at? Your job? Yes. Parenting? Yes. A Test? If it’s character, yes. Paying the bills? Yes. Loving your spouse? Yes. Talking to a friend? Yes. Confronting an addiction? Most of them are gone – but. Launching a dream? Yes. Running a business? Already failed at that. Writing a blog? Yes. Getting healthy? Yes. Showing compassion? Yes. Forgiving someone? Yes.

    All of sudden I like games.

    The amazing thing is Jesus. In California I received an encouraging prophecy. God still has a plan for me, and it is moving forward. The destiny of any Christian includes shaping and trial. How we respond is all that matters.

    Hang in there, Matt. Peter did. 😉

  4. Not only do we need to learn that life goes on after failure, but we need to give one another permission to fail.

    For many years I was afraid to try something new because it was out of the “safe” zone of things I was good at. With lots of encouragement, and a significant investment of time and resources, my husband finally convinced me to give my dream a go, even if it turned out to be a total bust.

    So here I am, out on a limb, still not sure if I will succeed or fail, but knowing I’m right where I’m supposed to be. Allowing our loved ones the freedom to fail is an incredible gift.

  5. I ilove the movie “The Incredibles” for this same reason. What!? you say. It is filled with commentary on this. Phrases like “They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity,” and “Everyone is special,” answered by “That’s just another way of saying no one is.”

    Many times I learn more in failing than in succeeding. Recently I have been “learning” a lot.

  6. Yes! I’ve long thought we’re doing our kids and our society no favors when we make everyone a winner. We have never been taught how to handle failure … and we have never been taught that failure is normal, part of the human experience.

    In the sermon yesterday, the speaker spoke about this–he reminded us that it is ok to fail. It isn’t ok to WANT to fail, but God in His infinite grace has fashioned redemption in such a way that He will lift us up again when we fall.

    That said, failure is never fun. I’m sorry you’re having to go through it. Hang in there.

  7. It’s interesting you mentioned video games, because I used handheld games and later a gameboy to hide. I could turn the sound off, fail with no one around to notice, and keep at it until I beat every game and then could tell everyone how awesome I was. I’m still learning to be okay with admitting failure, and the self-imposed isolation had a lot to do with it. That being said, I think the current fear of video games isolating our youth is overblown. For many, it’s still a social event, and as long as you’re playing video games with someone, you can’t hide your failure behind a facade. I think the danger is when relationship is removed from the equation, because at that point you deceive everyone including yourself.

  8. Ah, the irony. We fail at learning how to fail with grace.

    I have been a procrastinator most of my life. My argument used to be that I worked better under pressure. I now realize that the truth is, I delay starting big projects out of fear of failure. I “what if” the scenario trying to discover all the pitfalls and gotchas so I can avoid them. Then the deadline approaches and I am under pressure to produce. It is that pressure that prevents me from focusing on the fear and completing the task.

    My wife and I are trying to teach our children how to approach failure without fear and hesitation. Sadly, our schools and community groups have decided that we should shield children from failure for the sake of their collective self-esteem.

    Why? If we don’t teach them early to learn to fail with grace and then try again, what happens when they face failure in the “real world”? The school and the community sports group may want to make every student and athlete feel like a winner. But, that first employer doesn’t care – neither does the mortgage company or the angry customer.

    If our children aren’t taught how to experience failure, then it should be no surprise if they crumble when it happens.

  9. Thank you, Matt. Oh how I wish ALL parents could read this post. Resilience is something kids are sadly lacking in this generation. Not everyone can get a turn or win a race or get the top mark. I do a couple of things in my class to help them see their strengths and weaknesses. Also to see others have strengths and weaknesses too. One particular thing I do is a Multiple Intelligences quiz with them (easy to find it online.) This gives them a visual picture of how good and not-so-good they are at different aspects of life. It’s amazing the difference in attitude when their aptitude is not great in some areas. It’s not an excuse, just an awareness and they know they have to work harder but they celebrate their gradual gains instead of always comparing themselves to the kid who always gets 100%. I find it improves their resilience and they can celebrate others’ achievements instead of always being jealous of them.
    Competition, as long as it’s encouraged in the right way, is healthy. It gives people something to strive for. Look at our sporting events. Olympics and Grand Finals people love them. Kids need to learn how to win, how to lose and how to measure themselves with their personal bests.

  10. A fellow teacher has a sign in her room that says, “When learning, we are free to make mistakes.”

    I also like the Proverb, and I forget where it is, that says something like: whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid. It’s good to accept correction, and when someone points it out, it is freeing – then we can make the change more easily!

    Thanks for the reminder!

  11. Oh, and I almost forgot! You mentioned little league. If you want your kids to learn how to fail, have them play baseball, and use the opportunity to explain that the best baseball players in the world failed 70% of the time. If they can play baseball and not freak out every time they fail – and they will – they will get used to learning from failure!

  12. Interesting perspective on the video games. You’re right…kids need to learn how to fail and how to deal with it. I know that my oldest son has struggled with it and I’ve had to walk him through it. His father struggled with it as a kid as well.

  13. I absolutely love your comment about the video games and think you make a great point! Children are often more resilient than adults. We learn from and grow in our failures; without them we are deprived an essential part of our development.

    This quote came to mind as I read your post. “Our greatest fear as individuals and as a church should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” — Tim Kizziar

    Avoiding failure can often mask the fact that we may just be succeeding at things that don’t really matter.

  14. Hi Matt,
    This post lightened my heart a little :)! I’m a teacher, and have been struggling to do my job for many years; it’s really hard, plus I have found I have ADD, so the organization part is really tough. I’ve just been through a period where I bottomed out and realized I just can’t do this anymore. It doesn’t feel good to not do a good job at something you care about. So, I’ve decided this is my last year. And yes, even though I feel it’s a bit of a failure, it is very freeing :)!
    My message for you is that, there may be something you are not doing well, but your blog is something that is filling a need, at least for me. To me, humility in a pastor is one of the best virtues he or she can have, so embrace your weaknesses (provided they are real and not of your own imagination) and keep doing what you do well :)!
    And thank you! I love to read your stuff – it’s real!

  15. The best lessons in life for me have come from screwing up. I am glad for it.

  16. Thank you! This is so dead on. With young kids of my own I want to protect them, but at the same time encourage them to risk failure.

    Don’t even get me started on sports and school programs.