Too Small to Fail

There has been a great deal of discussion lately about whether protecting our kids from adversity prevents them from developing the much needed ‘grit’ that helps them live successfully as adults. But I believe it’s equally crucial that we allow our children to fail because doing so enables them to develop something just as important: creativity.

I’m not talking about pastels and poetry, though both those endeavors rank high on my list. I mean the kind of creativity that permeates every day existence: the ability to solve problems and adapt to changes. As a writer I know that the lifeblood of any good story is the character who finds a way, small or large, to affect change, to push back on the forces of fate. If the plot is too full of events that carry the main character along without her active participation, the reader gets bored. There’s nothing interesting about passivity, yet much of our culture today promotes passivity. Whether it’s a TV show being delivered into our brains, or teenagers ordering lattes to be delivered to their school parking lots, we’ve taken convenience to the point of absurdity. We order books off Amazon because it’s easier than stopping by Barnes and Noble half a mile away. We text our kids rather than walk halfway up the stairs and yell to them to come down for dinner. Please take note of the essential disclaimer here: I love watching TV and drinking lattes and Amazon Prime! Oh, how I love Amazon Prime. This isn’t about demonizing any of those things, but about being aware of the patterns that develop over time until one day we’re automatically taking the easy way in everything we do. Instead of getting creative, we get comfortable.

Though I don’t like to admit it, my husband’s obsession with soccer actually led me to an epiphany about failure and creativity.  Normally I refuse to devote any brainpower to sports. I get my kids to their games, I make sure they have clean uniforms and filled water bottles, and I praise them for working hard. But I don’t know what the score was the last time we played that other team, or what bracket we’re slotted in at the next tournament. I figure my husband spends so much energy thinking about, coaching and participating in athletics that our family simply can’t afford to allot it any more mental real estate. I did, however, read an article he recommended about why pushing our kids to play highly competitive, ‘select’ soccer is actually ensuring mediocrity and causing early burnout. Gary Allen of the Virginia Youth Soccer Association writes, “Instead of being able to experiment and really stretch him or herself, there is always present the consequence of failure, which promotes practicality, not flair, in his or her play. . . These players are given roles that do not have so much to do with their development as how to use the one or two extraordinary abilities they have while masking their less-developed attributes.” (Stifling the Development of the American Soccer Player).

In order to avoid failure, we stick only to what we already do well. It dawned on me that the same was true twenty-five years ago when I became an actress. It’s extremely tempting in that field to make it all about the results. First of all, you want to prove to yourself and everyone else that you can do it. No one cares if you spend three months doing Ibsen, but they lose their minds when they see you in the background of a Taco Bell commercial. Just as urgently, you want out of your waitressing job before you turn into one of those ‘old’ thirty-somethings who have been there so long that they remember what it was like to place orders on the old computer system, before the upgrade.

When you are actually ‘in the mix’ of auditioning and getting work, the process is so fast that casting directors and producers look for people who can perform at a moment’s notice. Especially in TV, it’s not uncommon to audition for a role and start the job the same day. When I worked in soap operas, an entire episode was shot in less than ten hours, and actors who could get the scene right in one or two takes were highly prized. You hit your mark, say your line, cry as the red light on camera three indicates it’s your close up. And moving on. Just like with athletes, you begin to put all your energy into the one or two things you do well, and you never develop the other parts of yourself.

I sometimes wonder what my career would have been like if I’d taken the time to write and perform in my own projects instead of trying to get legitimized by others hiring me. Even if it meant ten years of struggle to produce one quality role, I would still have escaped the restaurant at age thirty, and instead of a string of silly ‘love interest’ roles, I’d have something original to show for my time and effort. Now, I’m a believer in the big picture. And in the big picture, my acting career took me where I needed to be–I even met my husband as a direct result of that first soap opera job! Still, I can imagine a path that contained more balance between results and process. And that’s what I’m talking about here: balance.

It’s hard not to go for the results. I see this now when I talk to other parents. Everyone is so worried about test scores and grades and rankings; we feel we need to apologize for our late bloomers. If we’re not pushing our kids to do club sports and private music lessons, as well as having them tutored in math (not because they are struggling, but to stay ‘ahead’) then we worry they’ll be left behind. With our words we encourage our kids to be kind people who leave a legacy of good feeling and positive deeds in their wake, but in our actions we push them to seek validation and credentials. It’s a cultural pressure but WE comprise our culture. It’s up to us to change it.

So, if it’s about balance, it doesn’t mean that I’ll always shrug when they screw up. But I’m going to try to be more aware of ways I can allow my kids to do things badly. When I can I’ll steer them toward situations they can experiment in and even fail at. It doesn’t mean I won’t push them to work hard. If anything, what I’m talking about is process, and hard work is process. What I want to ease up on are the results.

Now is the time. If we don’t let them fail when they are small, when they still have the safety net of our loving arms, what will happen when they fail out in the adult world? As long as they are safe, letting them make mistakes will help nurture their creative responses on the field of life, and they will not only improve and grow–they will truly enjoy the game.