Daniel Ludvigson
Long Prairie-Grey Eagle Public Schools

We are often fascinated with the stories of people who rose up from humble beginnings. Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin and taught himself to read. Lebron James spent a large portion of his childhood homeless. Despite this fascination with rag to riches stories, we often see that as part of someone else’s life. Something that only someone really special can accomplish. I will let you in on a little secret. Perfectly ordinary people, people like you and me, achieve great things every day.

There is some integral ingredient to any story of exceeding expectations and accomplishing something unexpected. It is a willingness to fail. Without the willingness to try something, even though you may fail, we can never really progress on our journey. In learning, the greatest growth happens when you are in what they call the zone of proximal development. By definition this means a place in which you will fail. It is popularly known that Thomas Edison had 1,000 attempts at creating the lightbulb. When asked how he felt about this, he famously said, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” In truth our failures are also the ingredients of our greatest successes.

Learning requires a willingness to try something you are not already proficient at. This requires an environment where one can fail. You see, you only failed if it did not bring you one step closer to being successful. I can guarantee when trying something new, you will make mistakes. So why is it educated professionals are often found saying, “We tried that once, and it didn’t work.” Just think for a minute if we had this attitude toward babies. I tried walking once, it didn’t work.

We often give lip service to the importance of developing growth mindsets. That prized internal locus of control over our own lives. Yet we often forget to reflect on the hidden messages we provide students and people around us in the simple ways we structure our environments. What do you think it communicates when you grade a worksheet on the first attempt at learning a new concept? The person who scored 100% on the first attempt certainly doesn’t think effort and perseverance was involved. The one that failed on their first attempt isn’t getting the message that “trying” is rewarded. Instead, things get simplified into either you are good at X or you are not. Effort and learning certainly did not play a role.

Do people around you get to see you struggle or do you hide those challenges to preserve your illusion of authority? Do you try things that you are still learning or that you know you haven’t mastered even though you know you may not get it right? In this day of social media, there are a great many people out there that show off all the perfect aspects of their lives. A highlight reel of their life. You don’t see the failures, the mishaps, and stumbles. You see that perfectly executed flip, perfectly delivered speech, or that perfect smile. You should know people see these images and find themselves wondering what is wrong with them. They don’t see in this perfectly manicured landscape the mishaps that went into creating what they see in front of them. Instead they are left with the question, “What is wrong with me?”

So, when you catch yourself saying someone is more talented, knows more, or whatever it is just pause for a moment. The truth is the answer is probably yes. Yes, someone was also smarter than Abraham Lincoln. Chances are someone was or is more talented than LeBron James. They had their own failures in their steps to success and those failures are just as much a part of their story as the successes are. So, someone might be more talented, gifted, or whatever the case is but what does that matter? Are you willing to step forward even though you may make a mistake? You have something to offer, you just need to believe you do.

It is okay. You are not perfect, and people need to see that. We need to create environments where the process of learning, progressing, and improving is actually rewarded rather than simply categorizing people as gifted or not. You can do great things if you just keep taking steps forward. The work you do matters if you are willing to believe it matters. It may involve missteps, misdirection, and you can be sure it will involve failures. That is just part of the journey we are all on.

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