One of the greatest gifts a father or mother can give their child is the permission to fail. What? Don’t I mean to succeed? No, to fail. As we learn from entrepreneurs, writers, artists and creative people of any kind, it takes many times of failure to gain the key lessons for success. Yet our educational systems all over the world do not reflect these truths, but instead punish failure. As parents we can be even worse, bringing so much pressure on our children and often ensuring not a healthy learning in failure, but instead a crippling or paralyzing.
A few weeks ago in New Delhi, India, I was visiting one of my favorite used book stores in Connaught Place. A small paperback caught my eye by title and illustration. It is pictured above, the face of a young boy with tears coming from his eyes. The title in large letters, It’s Okay To Fail, My Son. I picked it up and saw that the author, Vasant Kallola, works in a media company as well as in the field of education. His little book is a novel, telling the story of the relationship of a father and son and the learning journey of both. It brings out powerful lessons in alternative ways of education, with India particularly as the context. Not punishing failure, or thinking that some kids that come from certain backgrounds can’t learn, but having a level playing field, with a passion for learning filling the classroom.
Learning from failure is not only important in business or creative pursuits, but must be built into the foundation of our home and school lives from the earliest age possible. As parents and teachers, we are presented with no more powerful “teachable” moment than when our children or those we mentor face the agony of a failed exam or unachieved goal.
Those of you who read this blog or know me know that history is one of my greatest passions. Much of my love for history came from an Uncle who was a history professor, as well as a teacher I had when I was 12 years old. This teacher encouraged me at that age to enter an essay contest, writing on a US history topic for a group called the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). This was a nationwide contest and had a prize, though I can’t recall what it was!! I worked hard on that essay, and sent it in. It was not the first piece of writing I would send in to publishers or for contests, nor the last.
I waited not so patiently, each day after school checking my mailbox to see if an envelope from the DAR had arrived. Finally one day it did. I ripped it open, and to great pain read a letter stating that my essay was very good for someone my age, but did not win the prize. I laid on my bed that night experiencing one of the biggest disappointments of my life to that date. My parents were great, but it was my history teacher that left the biggest impact in this situation. He said right away the next day in class when he heard the result, “you got robbed!” He continued to encourage me not to give up in my writing, and continued to comment in detail on the various assignments he gave me.
A parent, a teacher, a mentor who will encourage us when we fail. Who will help us get up and keep going. Who will not punish us for failure but rather make it an opportunity for greater learning. You see, sometimes the reason that we can’t give people the permission to fail is because of our own insecurity and fear of shame. It’s more about us, than them. It’s more about how we look to others, perhaps to the school or the company.
We all know it is not easy to fail. In fact, I hate to fail. But I’m sure you can say with me that the greatest lessons you have learned in life are actually more from your failures than your successes. Giving permission to fail, including to ourselves, is one of the most powerful places of growth we can imagine. It is a direct attack on the stronghold of shame in a family, a school, a company, a nation.
Many of you know the parable of the Prodigal Son that Jesus tells in Luke 15. The younger son has gone into the “far country” and squandered his portion of the Father’s inheritance. After he comes to his senses having wasted his money and life up to that point, he returns to the Father, not knowing what he will find. But in verse 20 these amazing words are found, “But while the son was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Not exactly what a normal Middle Eastern father (or any father) would do to a son that had failed so mightily, and brought such shame on the whole family.
Giving permission to fail, and being there very close when a person does fail, is exactly what Father/Mother God does for us. I remember a story that one of Billy Graham’s daughters tells. She had wandered far from God and her family, and like the Prodigal came to her senses. She drove home to North Carolina to see her parents, not knowing what she would find. She had called ahead, and as she drove into the bottom of the driveway of the house, there was her Dad. She got out of the car. Billy Graham came right to her, and took her in his arms as they both wept. The only words he had to say in that moment were, Welcome Home.
Who in your life do you need to give permission to fail? Yourself? Your son or daughter? Your co-worker or friend? It’s okay to fail, my…….