Failure really isn’t fun

I have a love-hate relationship with tennis. When spring weather finally comes to Minnesota, I can’t wait to get out on the courts. I love hitting a powerful serve. I love a strong, low groundstroke. I love a surprising shot at the net.

And I hate losing. Unfortunately, I tend to lose a lot, and it’s a huge source of frustration. I want to get better at this game, and it’s very hard to make progress. Sometimes I even avoid playing because I don’t want to lose.

When I re-read Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, this summer, I realized she was talking about me. When Dweck wrote about children with a fixed mindset avoiding challenges because they didn’t want to fail, I thought, “Yeah, I get where those kids are coming from.”

When she wrote about making excuses for failure, that was me, too. My foot hurt; I haven’t played for a while; the weather is too hot; the weather is too cold. I sound just like a teeanger.

When I do win, it feels so good that I want to frame it and preserve it. Put off the next match so I can revel in the victory a little bit longer.

But no one gets better by putting off the next challenge. I know that. So I decided to take Dweck’s ideas and put them into practice. The next match, I stopped focusing on whether I was winning and started focusing on what I could learn.

Every point, I studied my opponent. She set me up, teasing me out of position then hitting a cross-court shot behind me. She hit super-low shots over the net, which I missed because I didn’t think they were going over. She outpaced me on pure energy.

Then I set goals. This time, I am going to get her out of position. This time, I am going to go for everything she hits, even if I think it’s going out. This time, I am going to be so well-rested that she can’t outpace me. And it worked – I started playing better and winning more. I was actually having a lot more fun.

Changing your mindset is a good lesson for our students, but there’s an equally important lesson for teachers. If we are going to understand our students – why they shut down, why they make excuses, why they refuse to challenge themselves – we need to put ourselves in the same uncomfortable position they are in.

We can tell them “failure is a learning opportunity,” but if we’re not experiencing failure anywhere in our lives right now, we don’t really know what it feels like. Our encouragement sounds like a lie.

You want your students to change their mindsets? Find something to do that you aren’t good at. Learn a new language; learn a new sport; or try to get better at something you already do. Make yourself fail first, and then you can convince your students that accepting challenges – even with failure – is actually worthwhile.