We all grew up listening to stories, from grandma’s tales to animated fairy tales. They all began with once upon a time and ended with a happily ever after. We heard stories of honesty, of bravery, of overcoming obstacles and winning against all odds. The poor servant girl who married the eligible prince and the poor man who found a hidden pot of treasure. We eagerly awaited the all is well ending.

No one though ever told the story of the one who failed. The ugly duckling who never turned into a swan, the girl who remained a servant and the man who had to work hard all his life to make ends meet. A hero who lost the girl to someone else.

Why is it that we never talk about failure? Why do our stories never include losing? Or even when they do, why is it only the bad guys who lose?

Failure is as much a reality of life as success. We all lose as much as we win. Why then we have no stories that talk about failures in life?

I remember asking my grandmother this question. She told me that people look at stories as entertainment and they want to see the happy side. She said stories were used as teaching methods in ancient times and the wise men then used stories to motivate the public and teach them moral values. That is the reason they spoke of brave kings and rewards. It was a way of teaching children that success awaits those who work hard.

Yes that made perfect sense to me. Use stories to teach children to work hard and have sound moral values. However wasn’t it as important to teach these children how to deal with failure? After all, almost all these stories have told us that life is not a bed of roses, but none of us tell us what to do when the thorns hurt

All of us without exception face failure in life at some point of the other but none of us have been taught what to do when you fail. Is it a wonder then that failure is one of the biggest triggers of emotional problems and mental health issues? If we grow up hearing only the stories of success, we will grow up believing that failure has no place in life. Failing then means end of life? It is therefore imperative that we talk about failure, not glorifying failure but accepting failure.

Let us talk about the story of failure.

Failure, the bright student: A young boy had his head bent over a notebook. Sweat dripped over his forehead as he scribbled furiously in his notebook. Curious, his classmate peered into his notebook. All he saw were crossed out pages and scratched numbers. “What are you doing? Haven’t you still got the sum correct?” , the classmate started to laugh at the boy. “You will never learn as much as us”, he mocked the boy. The boy just smiled and said that he already knew more than the others. He knew more number of ways the sum could not be solved than anyone else. Maybe he won’t get the sum today but over time he would know what doesn’t work and will zero in on the correct method faster by excluding those. So the next set of sums would be easier and faster to do. This young boy was called ‘trial and error’ and his story of failure is one of the best known methods of learning. We often confuse failing with not getting something right. That is not failure. Failure is when you don’t know what to do with the ‘wrongs’. We have been taught to look at failure as a loss, as lack of effort and less knowledge. If we all succeeded all the time, how will we ever learn as a collective society?

Failure, the wise teacher: A wise and patient teacher was responsible for supervising the research work of her students. All her students were working diligently to prove their hypotheses and enrich the world with their findings. As she was about to leave for the day, she saw one of her most hard working student, sitting dejectedly in the corner, head in hands. Concerned, the teacher asked her what the matter was. The student said that her research was a failure and all her hard work and effort were in vain. She had not contributed anything further to the world of knowledge. “And why is that so?”, asked the teacher. “My hypotheses was disproved, the two variable have no connection to each other”, replied the student. The teacher smiled patiently, “Is that not a finding? Have you not taught the world something? Have you not proved that these two variable are not connected? We have learnt something from this too!” Failure is a brilliant teacher if only we are willing to learn. Isn’t knowing how things are not connected as important as knowing how they are connected. Knowledge comes as much from failure as it does from success. We are so focused on our definition of success that we fail to acknowledge the role of failure in the expansion of knowledge.

Failure, the inventor: The two siblings whispered furiously as they worked on the greeting card. They were trying to make a perfect one for their parents on their anniversary. Try as they might they couldn’t draw the figures right. In the end they just coloured the two shapeless figures and used bright colours to hide the mess they had made in the background. The card was a total disaster. Disappointed they just threw it in the dustbin and went to sleep feeling like a failure. The next morning, the mother found the card, of a couple silhouetted against the rainbow lost in an embrace. Tears welled up the mother’s eyes as she marveled at the skill of her young children. We define success as something we get when we achieve what we set out to. More often than not failure can bring out better things. A failed cooking experiment has led to the invention of newer and tastier cuisine. The failed journey of Columbus changed the world map.

Like all other childhood stories, the story of failure has a moral too. If you have never failed in life, chances are you will never succeed in life either.

 

Dr. Gauri Nadkarni Choudhary
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