frustrated male studentI’ve spent the last couple of weeks meeting new high school graduates and having conversations with students who are transitioning to a higher grade level. An interesting pattern emerged amongst many of the top performing students: some had never experienced a failure, but those that had described learning a lot from it. As a teen, I was a perfectionist. I had a 4.0, was active in extracurricular activities, I never broke curfew, and I worked part time. It wasn’t until my senior year physics course that I really experienced my first taste of not doing something exactly right. I received a C grade at the end of the quarter. We’ve written about perfectionism before, but I wanted to highlight some of the lessons learned from not always succeeding on the first attempt. 

1. View each failure as a learning opportunity and you’ll likely far exceed even your own expectations. Einstein didn’t come up with the theory of relativity on the first try and I’m sure Beethoven didn’t complete his 9th symphony in one fell swoop. When we review what didn’t work the first time, we can re-work, make changes, and develop new ideas that may be better than our initial ideas.

2. When we learn from a mistake, we’ll likely remember the lesson. Remember learning how to drive? I learned on a 5 speed manual and stalled at a traffic light my first attempt. After that, I always pushed the gas (sometimes a bit too much) when letting off the clutch.

3. When things don’t come easy, we appreciate the hard work it took to accomplish them. Have you listened to an acceptance speech for an award? The recipient almost always thanks a person who was with them even when they weren’t successful and that person pushed them to keep moving forward. Now they’re being recognized for a great accomplishment.

4. Practice leads to proficiency and if I’m proficient, I can teach someone else. When I think of all the things I’ve taught to others (whether teaching my brother how to ride a bike, teaching my daughter the alphabet, or teaching a medical student how to do a physical exam), none of these things were things I did the right way on the first try. I had to make mistakes, learn from that, then practice again and again. The payoff is that not only am I good at these things, I also understand them well enough to teach someone else.

5. Finally, almost all people who have been highly successful (whether sports, music, medicine, politics, acting) have practiced a lot! There’s a theory that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at anything. That is a lot of time to try and fail, then try again!

What are some other lessons you’ve learned from failing on the first attempt? Do you agree that sometimes failure is important?