Learning to Fail Well

“How are you failing today?”
“I fail very well, thank you. You?”
“I fail just fine.”

I read an article some time ago on the NY Times website titled, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In it, the headmaster of a competitive and prestigious school shares his concern that education today is missing a vital element. “This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.” What does he think is missing? The development of character, specifically, how to handle difficult situations, how to fail.

The article goes on to investigate and discuss different kinds of character development and how it can be taught and measured. Here’s where I want to jump in. You want to help kids build character? Give them puzzles. Often. All kinds. Make puzzles a regular part of their lives, like reading. Puzzles build character. Really. They do. Here’s how:

They teach us that we’re not always right; sometimes we misunderstand; we can be led astray; sometimes we get stuck and don’t know how to proceed; sometimes a good effort isn’t enough; sometimes we fail.

They teach us to try and try again, to look at a problem from different angles, to seek different interpretations, to question the obvious answer.

When a puzzle challenges us, we don’t shrug our shoulders and walk away. We know we get more than one shot. We go back and try again. We re-think our steps, try something new. Some of us may look for a hint or take a peek at an answer for a clue on how to proceed. We problem-solve.

When a puzzle challenges us, we applaud it. What a clever puzzle! Tricky, tricky, tricky. If we persevere and succeed, we feel especially proud, and if we fail, well, it was just a game. We want to try another one.

Playing house allows kids to practice interpersonal relationships. Books give kids a means to experience all kinds of things they wouldn’t want to try in real life. Puzzles give kids a safe place to practice failing. The first time a kid fails to solve a puzzle correctly, she may well give up. As she becomes familiar with the way puzzles work, she’ll stick with them longer. She’ll learn that when things don’t work out, she needs to go back and try something new. She’ll learn to persevere. She’ll learn that failing means she needs to re-think her approach and try again, and maybe again, and again. She’ll develop character traits that will help her succeed not only in puzzles but in real life.

Jen Funk Weber fails often.

3 thoughts on “Learning to Fail Well”

  1. Interesting ideas! Maybe video games are character builders if young people think of them as puzzles?

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Great post, and it leaves me wondering how we can transfer that same attitude to our writing projects, seeing every new novel, story or memoir in progress as a fun and tricky puzzle to be solved, requiring many, many attempts.

  3. I confess I'm not a big fan of video games, but I suspect some are puzzle-like. If not, it's time to make some!

    Andromeda, I find novel revisions very puzzle-like. Mapping a first draft to see what's there, how it all relates to something bigger, and how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide to make that bigger something clear, is definitely a puzzle for me. And one that builds a lot of character!

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