The Power of Failure – HKEJ – 23rd Feb 2013

HK Economic Journal February 23, 2013 Posted in JEMS Founder's Columns

Thomas Edison is one of my all-time role models. He is most famously known for his invention of the light bulb and without that, our world would be very different today. He also patented over 1000 inventions in his lifetime, which included the phonograph and a motion picture camera. He was a man of incredible creativity and resolve to make the world a better place.

But what I admire about Edison is not what he produced but the attitude he had in producing them. As the saying goes, it’s not just about the destination but the journey. In his attempt to create the light bulb, Edison tried over 10,000 times before he finally got it right. After one and a half years of trying different filaments, circuits and switches, he finally succeeded. That’s perseverance!

When asked how he felt after having failed 10,000 times, Edison replied ‘I didn’t fail. I just found 10,000 ways that don’t work’.

Edison didn’t see his mistakes as failures, he merely saw them as incidents he could learn from. So, in other words, failures can be learning opportunities. Couple/merge learning opportunities with perseverance, there is potential success.

Failure = Learning Opportunity

Learning Opportunity + Perseverance = Potential Success

When looking at parenting, many parents want the most efficient means of getting to their goal. They don’t want their children to fail because it’s a waste of time. For example, if a girl doesn’t know how to put on her shoes, get the helper to put them on for her. It takes a much shorter amount of time compared to having the little girl try. Or if a boy doesn’t know how to use chopsticks, give him a fork and spoon so that he can eat quickly and then have more time for homework. In choosing efficiency over giving children the chance to try, and fail, we are stripping them of the opportunity to learn.

Oftentimes people ask me what I think of ‘Hong Kong children’ (港孩) and the phenomenon of children not knowing how to do things on their own. Honestly, it comes as no surprise when you see everything being done for these children. You can’t expect a child to know how to tie laces on shoes if he has never been given the chance to try, and fail. You can’t expect a child to know how to use a pair of chopsticks if he’s only ever been given a spoon.

So I think the key in educating children is not protecting them from having failures but teaching them to learn from their failures. If we can instill in children the motivation to persevere in spite of difficult circumstances, we are setting them up for success in the future. I have met so many successful people in the working world whom have told me of stories of when they failed earlier in life. But what changed the course of their lives was the perseverance they had even when facing their failure wihch led them to overcome and be stronger.

As parents, we need to look at the bigger picture and the long-term vision for our children. Yes, it’s faster for you to get out of the house today if you pack your child’s schoolbag so he doesn’t leave books he needs at home but in 10 years time, your teenage child won’t know how to pack the things he needs for his exam. In 20 years time, he won’t know how to pack for a business trip he needs to go on. In preparing our children for the future, we need to start today.

I recently had an 8-year old student come in crying one day. I asked him what was wrong and he said that he had just been told off by mum for not being independent and from that day on, he had to do everything on his own. I asked him what that entailed and one of the things included using a pair of chopsticks to eat with – something he couldn’t currently do. The thought of having to do that scared him and he just felt helpless.

So, I pulled him into my office and for the next half hour, had him pick up items with chopsticks. I watched him as he fumbled over picking up pieces of cotton, erasers and paper clips with his chopsticks. I assured him he could do it and we’d take as long as we need until he could do it on his own. After failing a couple times, he finally picked them up. Then the final stage was learning to pick up marbles with chopsticks. Even this is hard for chopstick-using adults! The first time – he failed. The second time, he couldn’t grip the marble. The third time – the marble rolled off. At about the sixth time, he gripped the marble, picked it up and transferred it to another bowl. He looked up at me with his beaming smile and I had to hold back my tears! It was just so moving to see a little boy transform from feeling like a failure to having a proud smile on his face. He was so pleased with himself that he wouldn’t stop – he kept on picking up marbles with his chopsticks, each time with a bigger smile on his face.

The key wasn’t to give this boy a spoon instead of a pair of chopsticks. The key was to give him the opportunity to fail whilst encouraging him to persevere. Every time he failed, he learnt something and because of that, this boy can now confidently use chopsticks.

So give your child the opportunity to fail and to learn from it. There is power in failure – it could be the stepping-stone to success. Look at where it took Edison.

Christine Ma-Lau
Founder and Principal
JEMS Learning House

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