Life offers us three teachers. The first one is success. Success is my favorite teacher because it says, “Look what you did well! Keep doing it! Keep going!” Success is like a cheerleader or a mentor. There’s always a kind word from Success. And if we just look carefully, we might realize that we experience success every time we go to work when we don’t feel like it. We experience success when we hold our tongue instead of saying something rude. We experience success when we finish a commitment.
Being committed to school, as I have been, being committed to anything, has a cost. Commitment is free to make, but once made, the price is high. In a sense, it costs you your life. It demands everything. When I had written my 100th blog, my Muse challenged me to write 50 more in less than three weeks. I thought, “This will be challenging (meaning ‘not that hard’), but it will be fun (meaning ‘not that hard’). It was harder than anything I’d done in a long time. I had no idea of the cost. I didn’t realize that it would mean that almost nothing else would matter as much as fulfilling that commitment. I didn’t want to be with friends or read comic books or watch movies. I wasn’t really happy unless I was with my Muse and writing.
When I signed up for a Master’s program I again thought, “This will be challenging (meaning ‘not that hard’), but it will be fun (meaning ‘not that hard’).” It has been that hard. It’s been even harder than writing those blogs because it’s gone on longer, because there’s a lot more work involved, and because I’m accountable to more people. On the other hand, it really hasn’t been any more difficult than writing blogs regularly or working to become a good teacher or a good father or anything else I’ve wanted to do really well.
But I got tired. And I got scared. And I froze. I did what I absolutely had to do, but the quality of my work began slipping just a little. I had a huge assignment that I still haven’t turned in. I couldn’t make myself finish it. But I have to. What happened? As I said, I froze. I was sure that what I was writing was no good. I was sure that my ideas were terrible and that I was going to get a bad grade. So I just didn’t finish it.
There’s an expression that says, “Failure is not an option.” That’s nice and motivating, but the truth is that failure is always an option. And that’s what is so scary sometimes. I could fail. I have failed. Many times. Failure was a very real option. I know this, because I took this option. And failure had its own lessons. That’s why Failure is also my second teacher. Failure teaches me that sometimes I needed to fail because I wasn’t emotionally or physically or spiritually or financially or intellectually prepared. But it also taught me that it wasn’t final. Life still went on. I made new discoveries. It taught me that there are many paths to life and to God. But it wasn’t final. Failing at something did not have to kill me in any sense of the word. I wasn’t going to kill myself or end up homeless, broke, and alone. After a setback, I woke up the next day, every time, and tried again, or tried something different. Life still went on.
My students have to take a lot of tests. Sometimes a student fails the test and they are, of course, disappointed. I tell them they can either retake the test, retake a different version of the test, or write an essay in lieu of the test as long as it’s related to something in the chapter. That’s my favorite option to offer because it takes the pressure off and when the student writes a paper, the learning is often far longer lasting and far more meaningful.
I think life gives us options like that. We can take the same test over after we have prepared better. We can take a similar version of the test after we have made some necessary changes. Or we can do something completely different.
All of this talk of failure doesn’t mean however that I am encouraging myself or anyone else to give up. I’m just trying to lessen the fear of failure and its mirror image, the fear of success.
Failure is a teacher and so is success. But there’s one more teacher: Honest Effort. Every time I make an effort I am learning something about myself, about my potential, about the power I have and the limits I have (and don’t have). Honest Effort is also my favorite teacher. Often, when I get past my fear and keep working, something new and wonderful and exciting awaits me. And that new thing can be just as scary. That may be another reason I froze: I was afraid of my own power, of my own potential. But Honest Effort transforms and changes us even more than Success or Failure. Honest Effort tells me to Get Started and to Keep Going.