I once heard a speaker named Dan Miller at an educator’s conference tell the audience about how he learned to fly an airplane. First, you should know that he is disabled from polio as a teenager to the extent that he can only use one arm, and he walks with a serious limp. His sickness had canceled his first flying lesson; becoming a pilot was his childhood dream.
In his autobiography, he admits that “Planes require two good hands and two good legs to work the controls, yokes, radio, and rudder pedals. ‘Airplanes crash,’ they would say. ‘You’ll kill yourself.’ ‘You only have one good arm.’ ‘Your legs are too weak.’ I heard a lot of dream-breaker statements… My first lesson was awful! I had to reach across my body for the flaps, throttle, and trim. Every time I’d reach for them, the plane would dip, tip, and do everything but fly straight and level. I went all over the sky. I couldn’t fly. My lesson was a total failure. But I could give up on my dream yet… The next try, though still not good, was better. I tell people, ‘If it worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly at first.’
Dan eventually got his pilot’s license and has enjoyed many years of flying adventures. He also taught himself to play golf with only one arm, and he’s good. He scores in the mid-80’s regularly and has a hole-in-one to his credit. Impressive.
Anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly at first. That is wisdom for all ages. We need to embrace failure as a friend who is honest enough to tell us that we still need to work harder, listen to others, think more clearly, and learn more information. Failure has something to teach us every time. That’s what makes people successful — learning from mistakes and persevering slowly toward the goal.
Whether it’s a left-handed layup, a math problem, or a new technological skill, kids need to be encouraged to do things poorly at first, then a little better each time, until they make real progress. Then encourage them some more. “See! I knew you could do it! You have improved so much! I’m proud of you. Really proud.”
Bonus Material: J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book series, gave the commencement address at Harvard University a few years ago. She spoke about failure to an audience of young people most acquainted with success.
“I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.
However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.
Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”