Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Fear of Failure

I broke two boards in my tae kwon do test yesterday (green belt!): one with the palm of my hand, another with my elbow. I didn't expect to break them. I knew I could break one with a kick--my legs are pretty strong--but I didn't think my upper body strength could match that.

I also thought that, because I didn't think I could break a board, I wouldn't be able to. Self-fulfilling prophecy and all. But in fact it was easy; I broke each one on the first try.

I think the reason it worked had almost nothing to do with strength, and nothing at all to do with confidence. I broke them because I wasn't afraid of failing to break them.

I'm not afraid of failing at tae kwon do. This is a new experience for me. I like to do things well, and I mostly don't do stuff that I don't do well, or at least well enough for my standards (they are lower in many things--say, cleaning?--than others). I know what it is to fear failure, in other words. But I practice tae kwon do because it's fun, it's good exercise, and it's a way of doing something with Nick, and I don't worry a whole lot about being really good. The teacher is very kind, and he makes it easy not to worry about failing, too--although he corrects me (often!), he does so after praising me, after telling me what I did right. I messed up my patterns (memorized sequences of movements) in my test yesterday, adding extraneous moves to even the most basic one, stalling for a moment in both of the others--and he just had me do them again. Calmly, easily. And I did them fine the second time, and then I broke the boards. No sweat.

The flip side of my success yesterday is another experience, though. I've been grading papers this past week. I have good students this semester, for the most part: they have taken English classes before, they like to read, they contribute well to discussion. And many of their papers were really quite good. The ones that weren't, though, seemed to suffer not from an inability to read the poems, or to analyze them, but from a fear of getting something wrong. They were too cautious, too plodding, too slow; they said little that was right, for fear of saying something that was wrong. They spent four sentences where one would do, trying to "prove" an idea that was apparent at first glance. They made obvious (and, mostly, perfectly accurate) points, but didn't take any chances, go out on any limbs, to make more interesting claims, to push their arguments a little further.*

These aren't bad students, as I said. But their caution weakens their writing.

So, a paradox: I succeed by not fearing failure; they fail to succeed (by their terms--we're talking B- and C+ papers here, mostly) by fearing to fail. They wouldn't say they fear failure, of course, so much as they desire success. But the paradox is clear, at least to me: the desire to avoid failure prevents success. They need to be able to take a risk, to flirt with failure, in order to achieve.

How can I get them not to fear failure, though? Nothing's riding on my tae kwon do class, after all; if I don't progress, it's my problem and my problem alone. If they fail English (or even get a B, some of them), they stay in school longer, or don't get into grad school, or disappoint their parents, or don't get the job they want...etc. It's hard to convince them that it's worth taking a risk when they think the stakes are so high--and when, to be honest, they don't really know how to take those risks.

I've got my work cut out for me.

*One of the poems they could write about was Browning's "Andrea del Sarto," which is all about this. In class, almost no one got that the poem's subtitle--"called, the faultless painter"--represents a criticism, not a compliment. Andrea is good at what he does, but he doesn't try to do anything harder or more interesting; he knows that's not quite enough, but he's afraid to take risks, and that makes him "faultless" but not, as he recognizes, great. The essays about this poem were particularly weak, now that I think about it. Hmm.


  1. Hmm. Maybe you could use the poem as a jumping-off point for the discussion (as I suspect you were thinking at the end of the post...) Is there a way you could have them do some exercises or activities (journaling?) specifically geared toward taking risks (and not being penalized for them, gradewise)? I don't know, it's an interesting dilemma. I'd like to hear more.

  2. Libby -- Asa! Ah, the feeling of boards breaking under your will!

    It will be interesting to know how you break the boards of your students' will.

    Linda R