Failing to Learn to Fail by Al Romanes

Shall I let you into a secret? I shall. Tough luck. Hard as it may be to credit, my life has not been a stream of unbroken success! There has been at least one occasion – in fact I think there may have been thousands – when I have failed to achieve what I set out to do. There have been interviews at the end of which the prospective employers have, quite extraordinarily perhaps, chosen another candidate. Cazenoves, the smart stockbrokers, forewent the pleasure of my employment; Benton and Bowles, a cachet advertising agency of the 80s, advised me to seek another career path; BBC Oxford – the fools! – felt that the channel could survive without me and a certain Mr Hearn ,who ran a farm, even went as far as to sack me as an egg grader. I loaded eggs on to a machine which told you whether the little oval fellows were actually little, not so little, kind of average, big or barnstormingly enormous. Tragically my loading skills were limited and independent minded yolk holders used to jump off the belt and commit hari kari on the floor – cue the sack. There have been many other times in my life when failure and I have walked hand in hand: Oxford 1979 saw Trinity College electing to give the place to read Modern Languages that was destined to be mine to another student. Henley 1984 was witness to the Henley Standard bringing my employment as their Wargrave correspondent to a summary end when my “gripping” report on the Royal British Legion wreath laying ceremony did not pass muster. I could go on with a list of employment disasters but I will save them for another time.

Let me assure you that my ability not to come up to scratch has not been limited to my wannabe professional life. Oh no! There have been personal hiccoughs too – I mean I’m not married after all; so there has been a reasonable amount of rejection from the fairer sex along the way! But do you know something? None of these failures – whether personal or professional – have been too hard to overcome because I learnt to fail at school. We are set out on the path of education by our parents in the hope that we will learn the skills which will enable us to cope with life; one of the most important of those aptitudes is the ability to deal with knock-backs, to learn from them and to seek success elsewhere. Not being picked for parts in plays; being dropped from teams; coming bottom in the class in English (a piece of paper listing the order we had come in each subject was publicly posted at my prep school every fortnight); not being part of the “cool” gang (yes, honestly!); being overlooked as Head Boy in my final year at Winchester despite the fact that I was miles older than anyone else (almost 27); never climbing higher than the 3rd XI cricket at a tiny prep school: all of these were valuable experiences for me and I faced them largely on my own.

At the risk of being controversial I believe that the modern parent and the modern teacher often deny the contemporary pupil the benefit of this same process. I am guilty of it myself – for heaven’s sake, I’m still failing in my fifties! We pedagogues must not give out praise too easily and I’m afraid we sometimes do. Average essays, indifferent French compositions, uninspired presentations, disappointing performances on the sports field are sometimes treated as if they were actually admirable: cheap praise for quasi-failure. The trouble is that when a child is lauded for no proper reason, they can lose the ability to appreciate what is truly of worth. Criticism must not be cruel; it must be constructive as well as tactfully honest. In a world in which there was no evil, Good – it is said – would not really exist. Likewise when everything is praised, praise is without value.

The parental flaw- and an understandable one – is that they come riding to the rescue of their child like a noble knight (or sometimes a terrifying avenging demon!) whenever things go wrong for them. This is fine if there has been a bona fide case of unfairness and “Buggins” is very young but objectivity has been known to be lacking! Remember, however, that if you spring into action and fight your progeny’s battles every time they appear to be struggling, they will be slow to develop the toughness that they will need in life. Sadly there is no superhero who will rescue us as adults when something goes awry. I am absolutely not advocating that there should be a return to the bad old days of suffering terrible things at school in silence; I just want wisdom to be shown as to whether interference is necessary. Those who have been over-protected by well-meaning parents or cowardly teachers are less likely to succeed in the real and unfair world than those who have learnt one of school’s best lessons: how to manage failure.

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