The merits of failure

I wanted to be an astronaut, an archaeologist and a paleobotanist. Because Dr. O'Connell has a nice ring to it.

Last week I was hanging out with a friend and she told me something I couldn’t believe: In an effort to protect the self-esteem of children, some communities are introducing team sports without winners and losers.

This baffles me. How is a person supposed to know what he or she is good at if she doesn’t fail at something? If you really want to play baseball, and you’re not much good at it, isn’t it better for you to know early on? That way you can start working to get better at baseball, or you can decide that all the practice isn’t worth it to you and turn to something else. But failure is very useful because it forces us to confront our weaknesses.

I never really played team sports, but I can clearly remember a time when failure forced me to reevaluate my own aspirations. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. Or any kind of scientist, really. I thought I’d be a good archaeologist. I thought about going into geology, or marine biology, or paleobotany, or anything that required a white lab coat.

Mostly though, I wanted to be an astronaut. I was a fairly good student, so I thought no problem, I can do this. Right into high school, I was looking at colleges with aerospace programs and reading NASA’s application guidelines for astronauts. I had it mapped out as a freshman: Rensselaer, or if that didn’t work out, Dickinson. Then NASA. Then I’d apply to be an astronaut. No sweat. I’d just have to learn to live in Zero G.

Except I realized something in high school that I’d suspected all along: I was not proficient in any subject that would help me to become an astronaut. In fact, science was the one subject that really gave me trouble in high school. I failed physics test after physics test, and that was after I had enlisted a tutor. Mid-way through my junior year, I had to confront this fact: If I worked very hard I might eventually be able to be a mediocre scientist, but that would mean hellish years of study in fields I didn’t really like. And even then, there was really no guarantee that I would be selected by NASA as an astronaut. Even worse, I realized that if I didn’t like science, I’d probably hate being a scientist. Maybe I’d hate being an astronaut.

Being proficient in Klingon counts for absolutely nothing on NASA's astronaut application.

So I put down my physics textbook and re-evaluated. When I stepped back from my ambitions and looked at my reasons for wanting to be an astronaut the answer was neatly summed up in two words: Star Wars. This theme wound its way through the rest of my childhood ambitions like a celluloid ribbon. My desire to be an archaeologist: Indiana Jones. My interest in paleobotany: Jurassic Park.

What do these three things have in common, aside from the music of John Williams? Adventure. I wasn’t interested in science after all, I realized. I was  interested in having adventures. I tried a number of fields of study before I accidentally came to journalism, but I remember being relieved to find a profession that would propel me toward adventure while utilizing skills I already had. If I’d never failed, I never would have figured this out.

I haven’t despaired of space travel, by the way. Because earthlings being what we are, we will eventually need reporters and columnists in space. I’d return to journalism in a heartbeat if I could get an orbital beat.

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4 thoughts on “The merits of failure

  1. I agree 10000000% with this. Being too concerned with a child’s self esteem is actually just deluding them in the long run. I recall in grade school, at my school in new mexico, we had Gold honors for straight As and silver honors for straight Bs. There was talk of adding copper for straight C’s, to which my dad replied, “What will we give the straight D students? Tin?” … My dad tells it like it is.

    On a side note, I read that very copy of Star Wars. On loan from the St. John’s library.

    Also, I showed a friend – who is a science teacher – your hilarious photo montage and she really wants to know where you got that venus fly trap. She wants one for her classroom. 😄

    • Let us hope it’s not the SAME copy of “Star Wars” you borrowed from the St. John’s library. I was a forgetful kid and so was my brother.

      Anyways, your dad was right on with the tin honors. Encouraging a kid when he or she does well is one thing. Not letting them know when they’re not doing well is another.

      As for the Venus fly traps, my husband got them this spring at Ganim’s garden shop in Fairfield. If your friend calls her local garden place, they might be able to hook her up.

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