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Failure … It’s A Good Thing 2 comments

There is a bizarre sort of deja vu that comes from teaching the same material to different groups three times a week. The first time it is fresh, although perhaps not “new”. If not enough time passes between the first class and the second class, serious deja vu sets in. For me this term, the second class happens hot on the heels of the first one, a mere one hour later. It is going to be hard to keep the energy up for this class. I repeatedly had the feeling of “Didn’t I just say this?” The weird thing was that they actually laughed in the right places, even though I had the feeling that I “just did this”. A bit disorienting. The third class happens 24 hours later, thank goodness, and I have had time to shake off the first two. Still, I could feel myself getting a bit punchy. I am grateful that my Friday late afternoon (and I do mean late afternoon) class was equally as giddy last week and that made for an unexpectedly fun and energized class.

I should just say, as an aside, that I’m glad that acting/theatre thing didn’t work out. I can’t imagine keeping 6-8 performances a week “fresh”!

New faculty training, lo these almost 10 years past, included a session on classroom management issues. One of the suggestions I kept from that session is the discussion of my expectations of student behaviour in the course and I have adopted this as part of the first class for every course I teach.  The “expectations” page is about one and a half pages long and I go through it, section by section, trying to keep it light but letting them know I’m serious … all at the same time. We discuss the reasons for some of these expectations, why they are important. One of the sections is labelled “No Personal Attacks”. At this point in the class, I usually draw two little stick figures on the board and show the happy stick figures sharing their ideas in a realm quite separate from their physical beings.  Keeping the discussion in the realm if ideas, and not in the realm of “the person” is an important, nay, critical, distinction to make.  People can disagree with each other’s ideas without, in fact, needing to disagree with each other’s value as human beings. However, people fear that sharing ideas will result in others making judgements based on those ideas – and this is not a groundless fear to have. We do tend to do this, and part of the shift I like to see communications students make is to develop the discipline NOT to rush to judgement quite so quickly. This shift takes time, of course. I like to introduce the concept as a basic rule of operation in my classroom environment and, later, as a concept supporting team work.

So, by the end of the week, I had drawn my little stick figures multiple times, and tried to find different ways of saying “play nice … be kind … critique ideas, not people … healthy disagreement is force for creative good … what are some phrases we can use in this situation? … ” and, on my way home on Friday, with all this echoing in my head, I had a revelation of my own.

I ended 2009 feeling exhausted and pretty low and, although the end of 09 had its challenges, I’ve had rough patches before and not felt so defeated. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what else was wrong. Then, I realized that I had a lot of “big plans” for 2009, some as New Year’s resolutions and some as just personal goals … and I didn’t make much progress on any of them. I was experiencing the nagging feeling of having failed myself, of having lost focus. And I was beating myself up pretty good about that.

It seems to me that I forgot a couple of things.

Thing #1 – Failure is good.

Years ago, I took one of those self-improvement courses and one day the instructor said this:

If you haven’t failed recently, you are not doing enough.

At the time, once I thought it through, it made a great deal of sense to me. Of course! Statistically, if we are doing lots of things, we are going to fail at some of them. We are going to screw up, say the wrong thing, start the wrong project, piss the wrong person off. People who don’t take enough risks don’t experience a lot of success. Sometimes, “failure” is the price of success. We also learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.

Thing #2 – Stick Figures Rock

I forgot to be one of my stick figures for a moment, and I let the sense of failure get too close to me, personally, and not remain in the realm of the external. My “failures”, if they were that, existed outside of me. They are not “me”.

Thing #3 – Expectation Management

Setting expectations, or personal goals, or New Year’s Resolutions – I generally think these are good things to do. Somehow, though, I let an unconscious adherence to these specific and particular outcomes obliterate the beauty and the busy-ness and the fun of 2009. In 2009, I learned so much and laughed so well with such amazing people in my life. I learned to be more “in the moment”. I needed some help and I got it. I felt loved. How can a person wander around feeling gloomy about THAT? (Seriously, girl, get a grip … ) Long-time readers may recall my image at the beginning of 2006 in which I wanted a “burger with everything on it, extra pickle, with the juices running down my arms as I devour it” kind of year. I’d say 2009, most of it, came pretty darn close.

I still want to achieve some of those things on my 2009 list and, oddly, I feel more ready and focused to get there now. Maybe I wasn’t ready a year ago.

So, a new week begins and there are more stick figures to be drawn. I wonder what they will tell me this week?

From My Lips To My Own Ears 1 comment

After a long session of student presentations last Friday, one student turned to me and said, “I hate doing this. I know I have to do this, and I have to get better at it, but I hate making presentations so much. I get so nervous. I’m really terrified.”

In truth, this is actually a composite student because, with each round of presentations, at least six students per class look to speak with me privately to confess their terror and fear. The course is Business Communications and I freely admit that my personal bias is that I lean away from emphasizing the writing aspects and more towards lifting up their presentation skills. In 14 weeks, I can’t make students better writers when most of them come in with such a poor grasp of the basics of English. However, in 14 weeks, I can see vast improvement in personal confidence, organization and team-work when we focus on individual and group presentations. Therefore, this is where I invest most of my energy and effort.

Over and over, as I speak with these students about their fears, I hear the following truths flow forth from my lips:

  • Feel the fear, and do it anyway! Being afraid of trying something isn’t necessarily a good reason not to make the attempt.
  • The number one fear in our population, as shown in survey after survey, is public speaking. This fear is greater than death, heights or snakes. And, yet, the activity of public speaking has never, itself, been known to cause physical harm or death.
  • Repetition and preparation. These are the keys to reducing your fear. Feel prepared and ready. Keep trying. Keep practicing in front of others. Acknowledge your success every time you stand up in front of others and speak – just the act of trying marks success!

As I engage the students on a deeper level, asking them what they are actually afraid of, getting them to talk about their fears, it becomes clear that they are afraid of failure. Of being perceived as failing. By others. By themselves. It shakes them to their core.

It is harder to get the students to reflect on the role of failure in their learning processes. If I could get them to think about this a bit, I’d suggest that all learning requires new behaviours, new thought processes, new ways of assembling information. By definition, it is a numbers game. In order to learn anything, one must experience failure, or partial failure. Tiger Woods didn’t emerge from the womb hitting perfect golf balls. He has had to hit thousands, perhaps millions by now, in order to hone his technique. The vast majority of these attempts could be seen as failures or partial failures. And yet, he is regarded as being highly successful in his profession. Failure is a crucial element to success.

Men seem to be socialized to manage a higher degree of risk/failure tolerance. Boys are encouraged to stretch themselves physically, to try many activities. To physically engage with the world, to have an impact on it somehow whether through team sports or building forts or bashing each other in a Wii environment.  Girls, on the other hand, are trained to be more sedate, less encouraged to go out there and have an impact on the world. Boys are acculturated to “do”; girls are encouraged to simply “be”.

So, when women experience “failure”, we experience it as a failure of “being”. A failure at some essential level of who we are, an indication of some flaw of our very being rather than a failure of some activity we have attempted. Some of us have connected, very closely, the notion that what we do is also who we are. It is no wonder that the students who confess to me their degree of fear regarding making presentations are predominantly women.

The universe plays clever tricks with me. A long time ago, I learned to listen to the input I’m asked to give to others, be they students or friends, and to ask myself “what am I supposed to be listening to here?” In other words, when situations present themselves to me and I have some opinion to offer, I tend to mentally turn the tables and ask myself if there is something in my own words to (or about) others that I’m supposed to be listening to myself. Is there something about “feel the fear and do it anyway” that I need to hear myself right now? Have I blown my own fears out of proportion to reality?

Have I associated my own feelings about failure too closely with my perceptions of my essential self? Am I letting these fears hold me back from moving forward in any way?

The answers are complex. I’m still mulling this “table turning” over. I know I’ve spent more time than I’d like to so far this calendar year struggling with amorphous fears that are like ghosts moving through my life. I brandish my mental sword of analysis at them and they disappear, momentarily, only to re-appear and hover over my emotional life, lending a cold leaden chill to practically all I experience. I know that the times I feel sunniest and most at peace are times when these ghosts have retreated far far away. The trick, of course, is to remember – as I keep reminding my students – that fear is like a filter, a lens, through which we see situations and circumstances. It does not help us interpret reality accurately. Rather, fear is designed to distort reality. It is best acknowledged (feel the fear) and then set aside so one can proceed (do it anyway).

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