Failing Forward

Dr. Jessie Barrie, Head of School
I recently showed our students a video of a U.S. Ski Team member, Robby Kelley, competing in the 2017 World Cup slalom race in Austria. Robby enters the race in 1st place and has an almost flawless run until the final seconds when he experiences a dramatic fall. As soon as he is able to stop, he immediately begins to climb back up the hill to the missed gate and then completes the race, to the roaring delight of the crowd (see video here, if interested in a beautiful display of integrity). Robby commented after the race that if you ski, you are going to fall; he was taught that when you fall, you climb. With his fall, he went from 1st to 27th place but created a far more impressive memory than had he just easily won.

Failure is an inevitable reality in life, and yet, atychiphobia, or the fear of failing, is one of today’s most common phobias and manifests in countless ways: from the “everyone’s a winner” culture, through various parenting styles designed to buffer children from failure (helicopter parenting, snowplow parenting, etc.), to general wariness of any experiences in which a guaranteed (positive) outcome is uncertain. Fear of failure can magnify anxiety, debilitate us from trying new things, and significantly block our potential. Experiencing and learning from failure is a critical life lesson, and neuroscience shows us that failures provide significant opportunities for brain growth and development. Failure curriculums are now being designed and developed by schools and organizations that are seeking to promote the value of “failing forward.”

I had a series of unfortunate events (failures), connected to the gap year I took between high school and college. As a freshman, I had decided that I wanted to accelerate high school and graduate a year early. I was a passionate horseback rider, and my dream was to spend a year working for Club Med in one of their intensive riding programs. I did everything right for years—taking on extra classes and saving money for the adventure to come. As I entered my senior year, I filled out my application to work for Club Med, only to find out that I had to be 21 to apply. I was devastated and easily could have used that apparent failure as an excuse to give up on my plan. But after a day of despair, I brushed myself off, headed to the reference library (this was pre-internet days), and got out the yellow pages for all the Caribbean islands; I started making calls to every stable I could find. I eventually found a job and flew to the Caribbean thinking I had hit the jackpot. However, my fantasy quickly faded when I realized that living on a small remote island and visiting one as a tourist were not quite the same experience. There was no one my age, it was oppressively hot, and I couldn’t afford air conditioning. I was desperately lonely and bored. After three weeks of misery, I finally admitted defeat and flew home with “my tail between my legs.”

It was late September and my friends were having the time of their lives during their first year of college. I felt like a huge failure and had no idea what to do next. As I cried on the phone to a friend, he suggested I join him in Whistler, British Columbia, where he was spending the year working at the ski resort. Skiing was another passion, so with no better options, I flew out west from Toronto, arriving just in time for the big seasonal hiring fair. I was able to secure an apartment on the mountain, a great job I could ski to, and finally found my perfect gap year—after having to accept the reality of my initial failures. My year looked dramatically different from how I first imagined it (from beach to snow), but I got more than I had hoped for out of the experience, by finding ways to keep “failing forward.”
P.S. If you are interested in learning more about the opportunities and benefits of gap years, please join me on Tuesday, November 19 at 6 pm in the library.

This is one of countless failures I have experienced over my lifetime. I often allow myself a day or two to wallow in my frustration or despair, but I am always consciously thinking about how, like Robby Kelley, I can “fail forward.” One of my mentors reminds me that we are always practicing something and building muscle memory through that practice. We can either practice being defeated by our apparent failures and get better at feeling defeated (which probably leads to eventually stop trying) or we can practice climbing higher out of our falls and recognizing that failure is a huge part of our learning and growth. As an educator and as a parent, I think it is critical that we help today’s children develop a healthy awareness of and engagement with the power of “failing forward.” This is one of the many ways we are challenging education at Bosque.

All the best,

Jessie Barrie, PhD
Head of School
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