We Model a Lot of Things for Our Kids. But Have we Taught Them How to Fail?

Al Andrews

To celebrate my son Brent’s 16th birthday, my two boys and I signed up for the Tennessee Motorcycle Safety Course. It’s a two-day program designed for folks who’ve never ridden a cycle before. At the end of the second day, the prize is a motorcycle license.

Though we don’t have motorcycles, we dreamed of riding together on the Natchez Trace, a beautiful stretch of highway that runs from Nashville to Mississippi. No stop signs or traffic lights. Only beautiful scenery and gently winding roads.

Starting our day at the training facility with six other men, we began with the basics – this is the brake, this is the starter, this is the throttle, etc. Soon, we were riding around the large lot, dodging obstacles, leaning into curves, and changing gears. We had the greatest time together and by the day’s end, I was certain I would acquire the nickname “Easy Rider.”

The second morning, I aced the written test with a score of 100%, thank you very much. My sons scored lower than me, not that I would care about that. The rest of the day was filled with putting into practice what we’d learned and getting more comfortable with this two-wheeled beast of a machine.

At the end of day two, the teacher became solemn and said, “It’s time for the test” and he proceeded to lead us through a series of different challenges. He would show us what to do and one by one, we’d do them. He stood over to the side with his stopwatch and his clipboard, making marks on the paper and looking very serious. To say that the “fun” was sucked out of the group would be an understatement.

*Photo by KYNGPAO, Creative Commons

We each accomplished the assigned tasks, and then came the last requirement – to ride slowly in a figure eight pattern in a small space, staying within the lines and keeping your feet off the ground. Earlier in the day, we had practiced this and I was unable to do it.

One by one, the class members did the figure eight routine successfully. And then it was my turn. Thankfully, there were no videos of this, or it would have gone viral. I couldn’t do it. I’m not sure what happened, but my feet were on the ground most of the time, keeping the motorcycle from falling over and I spent more time outside of the lines than inside. More difficult than all of that was the fact that my sons were watching it all.

A few minutes later, the certificates were handed out and everyone got one but me. I failed the test and thus, the course. Within seconds, shame rushed in like water through a break in a dam, and memories of past failures came rushing in with it. The immediate celebration we were anticipating was tempered by my failing the test. As we went back to the car, I walked that fine line between “this was really humiliating” and “I’m so proud of you guys. You have a motorcycle license!”

On our ride home, we went back and forth between celebrating their achievement and being bummed out (my sons did a great job in the “You were robbed!” department.) And that dual conversation continued at the birthday dinner we shared.

Later than night, my youngest texted me from a friend’s house, “Dad, I’m so sorry about today. But thanks for teaching me how to fail. Love you, Brent.” That’s when the tears came.

I love to succeed and I want my sons to succeed as well. In soccer, school, and in various projects, I’ve always wanted them to win. If you think about it, there are a lot of books out there that encourage me in this line of thought. “Live your best life!” “Raise good kids” “You can be victorious.” and on and on and on. But there’s not much talk about losing, failure, and messing up – where frankly much of my life is lived.

In the midst of all this, I remembered a poster I saw on the wall of my son’s 5th grade class. It read:

    “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
    ― Michael Jordan

• • •

I mess things up daily. I fail my friends, my wife, and my kids. I forget to put air in my tires and the tread wears down. I miss a payment and get a nasty call from the electric company. I got a letter last week from the homeowners association because violated a neighborhood rule regarding trashcans. The list goes on and on, and ranges from mild to serious. And until the motorcycle course where my failure was displayed in living color, I’d kept most of those kinds of things under wraps, deferring to my more successful moments.

I think I’m going to change my ways. People have plenty of models for success. Successful folks tend to give seminars, write books about how to get there, and they eventually end up on Oprah. I’m going to have more conversations about what I’ve not done right, ways I’ve messed up, where I’ve failed and how I’ve found my way through it.

Because that’s where God comes alongside me and says, “I love failures – people who can’t make it, folks who trip and fall, prodigal men and women who stumble toward me, hungry and dirty, having made a mess of things. Those are the people who need me – who need mercy, who need grace, who need my embrace because life is hard.”

And so, for the time being, you won’t see me riding into the sunset on a motorcycle with gleaming chrome mufflers, because six months ago, I failed a test. At the time, I thought that was a terrible thing. Instead, I believe I found a door to the kind of life I want to live.

Al Andrews

Al Andrews

Al Andrews is a storyteller. Whether through counseling, speaking, or writing, his passion is to engage in the stories of people, inviting them to hope. He is the author of The Boy, The Kite, and the Wind and A Walk One Winter Night, which are available on Amazon. For regular updates, make sure to follow along on Twitter (@itsalandrews). To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.