In defence of failure

Olympic rings
Faster, higher, stronger, whatever

In the midst of Olympic fever we are encouraging the youth of the country to aspire to be the next generation of gold medal winning Olympians, which is great and all, but another way of looking at it could be that we are setting up 99% of our kids for crushing failure. Is money being poured into counselling support to run alongside all these new sporting clubs and centres? Because while we can all aspire to victory, let’s face it, the vast majority of us won’t achieve it.

For some reason the idea that with enough determination and hard work anyone can achieve anything has become to be the accepted wisdom – failure isn’t really failure, it’s just postponed success, but that’s just not true. Commitment and perseverance are essential, but so is talent and luck. It’s the unprectability of success which makes it all the sweeter.

Ok, so disappointment at Bejing led to success at London for Jessica Ennis, but for Lui Xaing, it just led to further disappointment.

Look at those rowing guys who missed out on getting a gold medal. They were so devastated not to win they had to be assisted out of the boat and physically supported for their post-race interview where they issued tragic apologies to the nation they had let down. They hadn’t even lost. They’d got a silver Olympic medal. I’m sorry, I was under the impression that was pretty good, or at least ok. Imagine how the poor bastards collecting bronze felt. It must piss on your parade a bit when the guys who finished ahead of you are too ashamed to face their families.

It is ok to fail. It’s impossible to win of others don’t lose. We seem to think that even contemplating anything less than world-dominating victory is a sign of weakness, and not only does that attitude set you up for disappointment and regret and also sounds suspiciously American.

My son was in a race recently and he came fourth. I was really pleased for him because he’s not very good at sports. Was I wrong? Should I have been telling him to try harder and he’ll win next time – even though he won’t? That seems a bit messed up to me, and I speak as someone who fully supports and quite enjoys psychologically manipulating children.

Maybe I’m not getting it; maybe I don’t have the right mentality for success. During the post-victory interviews I can’t help wonder if the guy who finished fifth is wistfully contemplating his life choices.


4 thoughts on “In defence of failure

  1. Over on the nice side o’ Pennines we say failure just means you’re doing the wrong thing. If at first you don’t succeed, try something else.

  2. I think we could all benefit by broadening our ideas of what qualifies as success. I’m quite good at alphabetising stuff, but sadly my acheivements remain largely unrecognised.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. I always feel ambivalent about schools sports days for the same reason. Whilst my son, who is 4 (!), is great at running and won the nursery relay, my daughter, who is 7, is just not sporty and looks utterly crushed after every sports day. Whilst it’s great for my son, I can’t help thinking that for most kids, it just makes them feel like crap. In what other field do we parade children’s failures in front of a crowd of people? Imagine if we read out the class’s maths results in public in front of all the parents, or the results of a spelling test, and then gave gold medals to the winners! Im not so much of a hippy that i want to ban all competition, but there has to be a better way!

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