Head’s blog: The transformative power of failure

I get knocked down
But I get up again
You are never going to keep me down

Tubthumping, Chumbawumba (1997)

In the start of term assemblies I spoke to the students about the importance of setbacks and failure in life. Using an excerpt from one of my favourite speeches – Theodore Roosevelt’s Citizenship in a Republic speech at the Sorbonne in 1912 – I suggested that many of the greatest figures in history had not only experienced many setbacks and failures in their lives, it was such things that had actually made them great.

If you’re not familiar with Theodore’s story, here’s a quick résumé . Having been a sickly, home-schooled child, he trundled through his early life as a failed academic and lawyer, lost his first wife in childbirth, caught malaria in Cuba and failed in numerous elections before being plonked in the White House at the tender age of 42, following the assassination of President McKinley in 1901.

Whilst most Americans will have held their breath at his inauguration, nearly all would later acknowledge his achievements as one of America’s greatest Presidents. If you want to understand the secret of his success, look again at that magnificent speech. Roosevelt knew full-well that having taken so many knocks, his European contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche was spot on; what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

It is not easy or pleasant experiencing major failures and setbacks early in life, nor is it easy convincing young people that such things make you stronger. It took me until my first year at university to take my first big hit. Having dreamt of going to Cambridge for many years in the footsteps of my father and grandfather, it didn’t take me long to realise I wasn’t going to cut it as a student of Natural Sciences.

Fortunately, with the help of some loving and supportive people around me, after a tricky few days I convinced my College that Geography was the subject for me and subsequently discovered a great love of the subject, with teaching naturally following as a career thereafter. If it hadn’t been for that early hiccup, I wouldn’t be writing this today.

So why are setbacks and failure so important in life?

Firstly, if you don’t get things wrong occasionally you are probably not trying hard enough. An arch-master of failure herself, JK Rowling, has often spoken about this in reflection on her early literary career. She has often said that if she had been scared or put off by failure and therefore tried to avoid it, she would never have written the best-selling series of books in history.

Secondly, people tend to learn far more from failure than success. Failure forces you to pause, reflect and consider how to do things differently and change yourself for the better. When I sit in my study at school I sometimes like to think that there are hundreds of little failures crystallising across the whole site, all resulting in incremental little improvements in developing brains. Success is rewarding and great to experience, but it’s not as relentlessly good for you as you might think.

Thirdly, failure and setbacks make us more resilient and more determined to get things right. In a recent survey of the key attributes today’s employers seek, ‘bounce-backability’ was at the very top of the list; something important to note for those of the so-called snowflake generation.

I finished my assembly by asking the pupils how they failed; did they fail forwards or did they fail backwards? This refers to concepts invented by the British educationalist John Maxwell. Students that fail backwards reduce their efforts, become introspective and don’t make progress, very often after promising starts. Students that fail forwards on the other hand embrace failure as an inevitable consequence of doing the best and thereby make excellent progress, becoming mentally tougher in the process.

Parents, of course, have a big role to play in all this, not just in sharing their own failures with their children but also letting their children fail occasionally, however instinctively upsetting and uncomfortable this feels. The bottom line is that if you can’t accept your children will fail and have setbacks every now and then, you are not letting them develop to their full potential.

I read Roosevelt’s wise words in a framed picture on the wall of my study every day. They are words that have kept me going through some pretty dark times, in the quiet knowledge that I’ll be better for it on the other side. Knowing this, I hope to never be amongst the cold and timid souls who never knew victory nor defeat.