Don’t Buffer Failure

I recently sat down and talked with Dennis Stanton on my podcast.  Dennis fell in love with basketball at an early age, he had his ups and downs with the sport but, his senior year in college, he was an all-American and led the nation in scoring.  He played professionally in Europe.  He is an Athletic Director at Souderton Area High School, as well as the owner of Every Level Basketball, where he trains thousands of kids every year.  The context may be basketball, but trust me, what he’s teaching is life skills.  I learned so much in our time together that I struggled to keep the key take-aways to under 10!

One thing that Dennis said really resonated with me.  He said that when we try to buffer the failure of another person, whether that is our child or a member of our team or family, we cheat them out of the growth that can come from experiencing a failure.  Sometimes we need to feel the sting of failure because it pushes us forward. 

It made me think about an experience that I had when I was on the speech and debate team back in high school.  I had entered an extracurricular speech competition, and I forget the exact sequence, but I won at the local level and then sectionals and then regionals.  I got to the district competition, which was the last level before getting to the state finals.  I was excited.  It was down to me and another girl.  She won.  I was devastated.

As we were driving home, my mom, who had been at the competition with me, said, “Look.  I’m your mom, so, of course, I think that you were the best.  And, I know it hurts.  But I wonder, if we look at it from the standpoint of the decision that she won was valid, why do you think the judges placed her first?”  When she asked the question, something that had been in the back of my mind, came forward, and I knew why she had won.

I grew up with severe speech problems, so most of my focus was always on my delivery.  And, my delivery was probably better than hers; however, because I was so worried about my delivery, I didn’t spend as much time on writing a great speech.  I knew in my heart that’s why she won: she had written a great speech. That made me become a student of how to compose a great speech.

The following year, I entered a bigger competition and I won.  And, I know that without the sting of the earlier failure, I probably wouldn’t have won that competition.  Had my mom chosen to buffer the failure or coddle me (as in “those judges are just wrong!”), I would have missed out on the learning and the growth.  As a parent, teacher, coach and leader it is natural that we want to shelter someone from feeling the sting of failure but think about the great learning that we are cheating someone out of when we do that.  I don’t know about you, but some of the best learning in my entire life has come after failing.