How failing helps us succeed
A beloved family member is beginning a journey in the field of Engineering, so I decided to join them in reading an assigned college text, To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design by Henry Petroski.
I chuckle as I notice how I automatically apply engineering concepts to human psychology and therapy practice. Everything circles back to this for me, just as all engineers must see things through their own lens. The author begins by talking about childhood and how an emotionally supported child (my evaluation) learns to learn from mistakes. We toddle and fall down. We discover which are the safest branches to leverage climbing higher. We build towers and knock them down, watching what makes them easier to topple. I think of how a child will react when they are criticized for these mistakes. They begin to think of the world very differently. Perhaps they shut down and don’t try. Or they have unrealistic expectations for success.
Thinking of my own experiences in life, I find that my failures when learning to ice skate were a necessary part of achieving a level of skill in the sport. I attribute many life skills and successes to the experiences I had as a pre-teen just beginning to learn. I was not a natural skater. I fell down A LOT. Not only that, but I was old enough to be embarrassed by it. I learned to set aside the disappointment and (snow) plow ahead. When I teach skating on rare occasions, I tell the eager new skater that they will fall down. They may at first be frustrated to discover that you have to fall down in order to learn to stay up! In fact, the first thing I do is get us down on the ice and teach them how to stand up. Some people get really upset when they fall or don’t quickly learn a basic skating skill. The ones that succeed in learning either have so much natural balance and skill that they overcome the building blocks of the skill without too much frustration, or they are patient with the process. The ones who stick with it learn that falling is as much a part of it as gliding or turning on the ice. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon with learning to play an instrument as an adult. You must play through mistakes and learn how to correct them in order to play.
In therapy, I try to impart this fact: Failure does not mean that one is not capable or worthy. It’s an important step to success. You are learning to learn from your mistakes. We have to let go of regret and guilt about the past. We can make amends. Corrections. Find forgiveness. And try again.