Wanted: One Rustic, Wobbly Coffee Table

Soon after Dave and I moved in together, his college friend who had been loaning him a coffee table came and picked it up. We were both post-college, headed for graduate school, and totally broke.  We lived without a coffee table for a while, and then read in a magazine (remember those?) that we could build one for $30. What the hell, we thought, let’s build one. So, we set out to the nearest Home Depot to get the supplies, and over a Saturday morning proceeded to build the coffee table from the instructions provided.

What we built, though, wasn’t exactly a coffee table. Dave and I were not the “handiest” people at age 22, so what possessed us to try and do this, I’ll never know. The end product was much larger, and more, um, cubic, than we had expected, and it barely fit in our tiny apartment. The table wobbled, the top resembled the Colorado foothills more than a flat surface, and the wood splintered a bit when you tried to put your feet on it. Compared to the end product in the magazine picture, it was an epic failure.

Dave and I were recently recalling – and laughing about – this experience as we were thinking about our own failures. We have both written about the importance of getting our kids to the point that they experience what it feels like to fail. There’s also a plethera of literature about the role of failure in defining success.

We all instinctively know that achieving success all the time is not only unrealistic and unsustainable, but unhealthy. Real breakthroughs happen usually after multiple attempts, some of which are spectacular failures. But, it’s like balancing on a seesaw: accepting failure and defeat all the time isn’t healthy either. What we want to instill in our kids (and ourselves) is the idea that failure is an expected part of life, but that each failure should lead us to either continue to try and improve until we ultimately succeed, or realize that achievement of the goal wasn’t that important to begin with. If we could only get them to be more comfortable with failure, we lament, they would be more likely to reach true success. Why are they so afraid of failing?

The answer, as always, is that we refuse to model or reinforce failure as adults. A recent discussion serves as an example: a good friend of mine was successful in advocating for whole-grade acceleration for her child after acquiring and presenting the necessary data. Her daughter has started in the new grade, and loves it, but feels she could probably move up in math. She’s interested in trying the next math class up as a challenge, but the teachers won’t budge. Why? They are afraid she’ll fail. Keeping her in the class, instead of encouraging her to try something more challenging (and perhaps failing at it), is showing the young woman, in real time, that even the possibility of failure is not an option for adults.

What’s even more powerful than modeling? Reinforcement. The kids will listen to what we say,  follow what we do, live what we reinforce. Our kids rarely see us have a catastrophic failure and then watch as we attempt to gracefully handle the situation, choosing to either continue to work at it, or decide to move on. We’re also more comfortable as a society celebrating our successes than our failures. Do we celebrate the kids who went for the real challenge, got low grades the first semester, then worked their tails off, learned a ton, and really improved the second semester? Nope. We celebrate the kids who took the less challenging path and got straight As all the way through. Play it safe, we reinforce to them. We may talk about how great failure is, but we don’t want you to actually do it. And when is the last time you “liked” a friend celebrating an epic failure of their own on Facebook?

By the way, our rustic, wobbly coffee table turned out to be quite useful. We put an old blanket from Mexico over it to protect us from the splinters, stuck a book under one of the legs to level it, and put the thing to good use as a combination coffee table/dining table in our little apartment. We both vividly remember the great time we had building it, and how hard we laughed when we finished and compared it to the picture. Neither of us can remember what we did with the table when we eventually moved; it was replaced with a smaller, store-bought table in our graduate school apartment.

But now, having three gifted, intense kids, I almost wished we’d kept it.  It would be a living celebration of failure, modeled and reinforced to our kids every day. In the end, a perfect product wasn’t important to us because we really didn’t care what anyone else thought about our coffee table.  We made the most out of the situation, and moved on with what we had, imperfections and all.

Given our current situation with our kids, Dave and I have started to revisit our (many) early failures. We are working towards freeing our family from society’s tired old models of achievement,  and instead striving to model and reinforce what we express to our kids. Celebrating each of us trying hard at something potentially out of our league, possibly failing at it, and then picking ourselves up and trying again, or moving on.  Because showing them failure, and celebrating it, will be more powerful than any of the words we speak.

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