September 6, 2019

It’s All Good / Patti Lamb

We should use failure to grow in mind, body and spirit

Patti LambI work at a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) lab, and something happened a few weeks ago that’s worth sharing, especially as school is back in session.

The lab’s assistant director gave instructions to a group of third-grade students about coding a robot. A couple of the kids were eager, but most of them looked nervous. After all, they were only 9 years old and the idea of coding a robot was entirely new.

Then, the instructor gently leaned in and used these words. “I want you to give it your best shot, and I hope you fail because …”

The group collectively gasped before she could finish her sentence. One little girl whipped her neck back.

“That’s rude!” she spouted off, as she had clearly taken offense.

Then the instructor kindly asked for permission to finish her sentence.

“I want you to give it your best shot, and I hope you fail because at this lab, we find that’s often how we learn to do it better, or right, or differently,” she said.

“Now, ultimately, I want you to succeed,” the teacher added. “But if you get it perfect on the first try, well, you’re not really ‘learning’ then, are you?” she asked.

She wanted students to understand that failing is sometimes a necessary part of learning.

The word “FAIL” itself is an acronym for “First Attempts In Learning.”

“We are learners here,” the teacher said, “and learning is what’s happening in this space.”

I felt like it was a pep talk for my life. I scribbled her words on scrap paper in the corner by a 3D printer.

I needed that reminder in my own life, and so do my kids. Henry is a freshman in high school now, and Margaret has officially entered middle school. Their classes, teachers, schedules and school buildings—they’re all new to them.

Stress surfaces over everything—from new locker combinations and navigating through the school cafeteria, to making new friends and taking on higher levels of responsibility.

I try to remind them—and myself—that we need to give ourselves grace and recognize that straight A’s and varsity records are rarely achieved straight out of the gate.

There’s a quote by William Saroyan that I like: “Good people are good because they’ve come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success, you know.”

I searched for a better way to talk to my kids about failure, incorporating how we might encounter God’s presence when we’re feeling unsuccessful. I came upon a Christian minister, Joe Thorn, who posted a reflection online regarding “Four Ways to Find Grace in Our Failures.”

In a nutshell, he summarized that failure:

  • “Reminds us that we are not the Savior.” He explained that we can’t do it all, and failing advises us that we need to rely on God.
  • Teaches us humility. “He uses circumstances to make us more dependent on him, less dependent on ourselves,” Thorn wrote. (“He will use us in spite of ourselves,” he added, and that made me smile.)
  • “Encourages us to be learners.” Thorn stressed that we must remain teachable.
  • “Can be used by God to show us a better way.”

Thorn ended his post with this statement: “We will fail. A lot. But God will use all of it for his glory and our good if we are willing to find grace in our failure.”

Here’s to giving ourselves grace in defeat, as we grow in mind, body and spirit, striving to reach our eternal home.

(Patti Lamb, a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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