CCE Corner — Fear Not: Failure and Formation, part I

March 7th, 2024

When I sat down to write this post, I struggled to find a title. Using the word “failure” produced something of a visceral reaction in me. Associating that word with Trinitas seemed like a bad marketing move. I decided to risk it. Our virtue focus this quarter is Perseverance. Our hall and classroom posters display a definition from Plato: “a bearing up under labor for the sake of what is honorable.” We all know perseverance involves labor; this post explores the bookends of that definition: the “bearing up” and the “for the sake of what is honorable” parts.

Taking the latter part first—what does Plato mean by “for the sake of what is honorable”? Hard work is always aimed at something. Sometimes we need to pause and ask, “What am I working so hard for?” Asking this question can produce all kinds of responses, from staying the course to relatively minor adjustments to existential transformations. It can be a motivating question—remembering a goal of running a marathon can get one out of bed on a cold, rainy Saturday morning. It can be a course-altering question—an examination of our family’s hectic weekly pace during middle school years led us to cut back on some activities (good as those activities all were). Notice that perseverance, with its “for the sake of what is honorable” framing, may actually lead someone to quit something. Perseverance that does not aim at something good or that comes at too heavy of a cost to other goods or better goods is not a virtue but rather the vice of obdurateness.

What about the “bearing up” part? There are various contexts in which perseverance requires bearing up, but the context I’m particularly interested in is the context of failure since failure is one of the best training grounds for this virtue. I love this Japanese proverb: “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Take a second and read the proverb again. There is something odd about it. If you fall seven times, don’t you need to get up just seven times? Why “eight”? Maybe the proverb assumes rising from bed in the morning is the first getting up. Or maybe “eight” is simply for rhetorical emphasis. Or maybe it shows how failure builds the virtue of perseverance, how the act of getting up seven times habituates and strengthens the character muscles and makes one ready to get up again in the future, an eighth time.

There are many recent studies about perseverance (a.k.a. “grit”) and failure—studies that show it is better to have a “growth mindset” than a “fixed mindset,” that one significant way of “bearing up” is to see obstacles and setbacks as opportunities for improvement. That all sounds nice, but failure can be painful, and we often fear it, for us and for our children. How can we overcome this fear and build perseverance? A quick answer is to create opportunities for frustration and failure and then keep calm.

I once heard a “Love and Logic” speaker say parents should give children jobs and then hope that they fail. Such instances provide opportunities to stay calm and lovingly guide them through reflection on the situation and ways to correct it and move forward. Children should have plenty of experiences of success, but we can’t teach them how to overcome frustration and failure without their sometimes experiencing those too. The home is a good and loving training ground for this. The school can be too.

I read an article a while back about a school that has a “failure room.” The sound of that is terrible, but the room is not a place of shame to send students who have failed an assignment or a test. It is a place for students to spend some time exploring impossible or nearly impossible tasks. It is designed to build confidence through the experience of frustration and failure. Trinitas doesn’t have a failure room, but we do have a challenging curriculum. I remember meeting with a parent a while back whose son was doing poorly in a class. We talked strategy for improvement, of course, but what struck me was that she was grateful for the opportunity for growth the challenge provided. We joked about a new tagline: “Come to Trinitas, your child can fail.” Our own children experienced plenty of frustration and a few failures while they attended Trinitas. We learned to keep calm and ask a few questions: What didn’t you know? How can you learn it now? What can you do differently next time? We combined those questions with reminders that there is no shame in being a beginner at something and it is often a sign of strength to ask for help. Getting a few D’s in Greek in middle school and the subsequent tutoring were good preparation for our son, who during college was not embarrassed to reach out to the university’s academic support program when he needed help. He eventually went on to law school.

“Tell us about a time when you failed at something” is a popular college application essay prompt. One reason admissions officers like failure essays is that they build confidence that the applicant has what it takes to overcome challenges in college. If a student has had only success upon success, it is difficult to know what will happen when he or she first encounters a failure. While Trinitas’s curriculum, and the successes and failures that go with it, is not designed for the sake of college application essays, it is designed, in part, to help students develop the virtue of perseverance by learning to grow through frustrations and failures and to evaluate the implicit and explicit goals of their work. In short, it is designed to help them “bear up under labor for the sake of what is honorable.”

This post assumes a certain level of fear associated with failure, but what if a student exhibits a high comfort level with doing less than we know he or she is capable of? In the next post, we’ll look more closely at the “under labor” part of Plato’s definition.