Let’s Fear Failure—But First Let’s Change the Definition (Summer Series) | Stephen Carter | 7 Min Read

Summer Series 3: In the spirit of meaning-making, let’s revise the meaning of failure.

June 29, 2023

It’s trendy in educational circles to talk about “embracing the learning experience of failure” or “teaching students to not fear failure,” but at the end of the day, it’s the same old story: we’re afraid. When we do a cost-benefit analysis, we tend to overload the cost side and assume it is not worth the risk. When we consider our shareholders, our customers, and our employees, we decide to play it safe and minimize damage. Playing it safe can certainly be appealing—especially in the independent school arena. When the school board looks at enrollment numbers and makes a direct comparison to customer satisfaction in the classroom, it can be enticing to continue to rely on tested methods of the past. It can be enticing to avoid failure at all costs. It can be enticing to stay comfortable.

But comfort is the enemy of progress. Consider one of the greatest “failures” in Greek mythology: the flight of Icarus. Joined by his father, Daedalus, Icarus donned feathered wings to escape the labyrinth. He was instructed to avoid flying too close to the sun lest the heat melts the wax adhering the feathers to his body. This advice was well and good, but Icarus, once aloft and under the intoxicating influence of flight, tests the boundaries and, inevitably, flies too close to the sun. The wax melts and he falls to the sea to meet his drowning fate.

Alas, we say, Icarus fell. Icarus disobeyed. Icarus failed.

Except we are forgetting one key fact—Icarus flew. Icarus soared above the clouds and touched the very fabric of the heavens. Who among us can say the same about ourselves? Who among us would have stayed in the labyrinth for fear of potential failure?

The speaker in Jack Gilbert’s poem, “Failing and Flying,” draws attention to this fact and then compares Icarus falling to a marriage failing. People focus on the pain of the divorce instead of the beauty of the love that preceded it. People focus on the fall and forget all about the flight. People say Icarus failed and ignore his reaching for glory. Of this, the speaker states, “But anything worth doing is worth doing badly . . . How can they say the marriage failed?” Indeed, how can anything be labeled a failure if…

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Stephen Carter

Stephen Carter is the Director of Entrepreneurship and Sustainability at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy where he has taught for 17 years. His forthcoming book, Teaching the Entrepreneurial Mindset, chronicles the ten-year journey of the entrepreneurship program and his own experience in learning to think like an entrepreneur. He is available for speaking and consulting and can be reached at [email protected].