By Makena Schultz Neal
I want to share with you a few things I’ve learned about learning from failure. But first, I’m going to start by telling you a story. It’s a story about downhill skiing. Growing up on a farm with parents who worked additional jobs (outside the farm) meant that vacationing was a very specific thing for me as a child. Usually it involved visiting family or going on an educational excursion, the length was a weekend on average, and rarely were both my parents with me (one had to stay home with the livestock). I grew up in the Irish Hills of Michigan, and my mom taught me to cross-country ski. We both were also photography enthusiasts, and cross-country skiing was an annual tradition where we could be silly, get outside in the dreary Michigan winter, and take some photos.
My partner, Curt, on the other hand, grew up downhill skiing. His whole family downhill skis and have gone on vacations to do so in a more serious terrain than the lower peninsula of Michigan provides. So when he and I started dating, he was quite adamant about my adoption of the activity. It took two winters of being together before I agreed to try. I knew I enjoyed cross-country skiing and also knew I did not [generally] enjoy adrenaline inducing activities, so I was apprehensive. Curt and I went with a group of our friends, who were also “downhillers,” went to a festival at a ski resort in the northern lower peninsula. We woke up early, rented my equipment, and started off toward the bunny hill.
Immediately, I was terrified because the “magic carpet” was broken and I would be required to use the chair lift. With a pep talk from my partner and his accompaniment, I successfully boarded and de-boarded the chair lift. AH! A moment of pleasant surprise, content, and a little bit of pride. I did that! Then I looked down the hill… and was again terrified. I felt like my stomach was in my throat and it wasn’t like we were the only two people on the hill. I was so scared of not being able to stop and crashing into someone, or of falling right in front of someone else and causing them to crash. I felt a heightened awareness of my surroundings and it seemed like my legs were made of lead. Curt held my hand and we started down the hill. Every time I felt out of control I decided I would sit down. It took a solid ten minutes for me to get down the hill the first time, and quite frankly I wasn’t thrilled to go back to the top and start over. But, with the help of my partner, I got to the point where I felt “kinda-okay” riding the chair lift to the top of the bunny hill and skiing back down to the bottom.
We decided to take a break for some nourishment and to touch base with our group of friends. I really started to feel like myself after having some time in my sneakers, filling my belly, and laughing together. When the group decided it was time to head back out, it was dark outside. The lights on the hill were so bright that they created a glare on the icy crust on top of the snow. Following the larger group, Curt encouraged me to try a different hill – a green! Now for those of you who ski, this is probably no big deal, but for me this seemed outrageous. Upon hearing my protest, the group chimed in with countless words of encouragement and I got on the green hill chair lift. I proceeded to get stuck on the chair lift. Yep. I missed the platform to ski off and the nice man running the lift had to stop everything so my friends could lift me off the chair by my ankles. Then I’m at the top of a hill, and again and terrified because I don’t “know” this hill. Again, Curt went with me and every few yards down I would get going too fast and would sit down. By the middle of the hill (already longer than the bunny hill) I was exhausted and crying. I was failing at downhill skiing and felt awful about it- despite all kinds of positive feedback from my friends. When I finally got to the bottom of the hill, I promptly walked back to our room and was done with downhill skiing.
Why did I tell you about skiing in an article that is supposed to talk about learning from failure? It’s a low risk example that sets up some factors that I believe are key to embracing failure (which is hard to do in practice.) First you have to take time to know yourself. Sense of self is what gives us the courage and confidence to try new things, and helps us make meaning of those things (regardless of how they go.) After making efforts to reflect on and get to know yourself, you are better equipped to gauge how comfortable you are in or with a new situation. Vulnerability and being willing to expose yourself to the unknown is another factor in embracing failure. Linked to being vulnerable is a willingness to take a risk. In order to embrace failure you have to be willing to put yourself in a place where failure could happen in the first place.
Fear of failure is often a barrier to positive risk taking. That’s why it took me two years to try downhill skiing in the first place. I was afraid of failing (and hurting myself). When we take a risk and fail, the next factor is reflection. In order for us to reframe failure as a positive, we have to give ourselves time for reflection. This doesn’t mean we have to immediately jump to a “learning outcome” from a failure. It is important to be aware of and make space for your feelings in that moment. After giving yourself that space, think about the experience or situation. What were your expectations? How did the experience meet or not meet those expectations? What things that influenced our failure were within our control, and which were outside of our control? What might you have done differently to help experiences meet your expectations based on what is within your control? Think about and coming to conclusions about these questions helps you transition into the final factor of embracing failure: growth. In recognizing different paths we could have taken, we are learning from our failure and developing knowledge or ideas that could decrease our risk the next time we encounter a similar experience.
This winter Curt and I went back to the same annual festival. When I reflected on my failed downhill skiing attempt, I realized that downhill skiing wasn’t a part of my motivation for going on the trip. I felt fulfilled by the opportunity to explore a new part of my state, spend time with my partner, and make new memories with our friends. When I realized that these motivations were very much within my control and my partner asked if I’d like to return to the festival, I agreed with a compromise. I brought my cross-country skis and my partner brought his downhill skis. We spent our day in different spaces of the resort, but came together each night for quality time with each other and with our friends. I shared this story with you to demonstrate that failure is a part of the smallest things, and that with a willingness to try, an understanding our expectations, and space to reflect on our experiences we gain agency in shaping the way we frame our experiences. Through continual practice of knowing ourselves, being vulnerable, taking risks, reflecting on experiences, and growing from what we learn, we can build our capacity to embrace failure.
Makena Schultz Neal is a Higher, Adult, Lifelong Education doctoral student at Michigan State University. Prior to working on her doctorate, she was a Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) educator who specialized in positive youth development programs around the topics of leadership and civic engagement.
Makena is a Spartan through and through, earning both her Bachelors of Science in Environmental and Agricultural Sciences (2011) and her Masters of Science in Community Outreach and Non-formal Education (2013) from MSU’s Department of Community Sustainability (formerly known as Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies).