“I can’t do this.”
“Why should I try again? I’m just going to fail.”
“Maybe I’m just no good at this.”
“I’m tired of trying.”
I hear those refrains from my coaching clients about lifestyle changes. I hear them from my blog followers about relationships. And, most of all, I hear them from my students about algebra.
My days are filled with students groaning in frustration, papers wadded up and thrown away in disgust. Every day, I reach into my supply of pencil-topping erasers and provide students with a way to obliterate their mistakes. Sometimes, they become too defeated by even the faintest echoes of work gone wrong, and I have to provide them with a fresh copy, unsullied by their past choices. Some students thrive when they can write on the Activeboard or even with dry erase markers on the desk, where the marks of any error erase without a trace. I model starting over, capitalizing upon rather than hiding my own mistakes at the board.
So much of my day is spent coaching people in starting over – motivating past the initial resistance and guiding new attempts. And even though I coach students on algebra and adults on life, much of the lessons are the same.
We would rather fail because we didn’t try than fail because we couldn’t do.
This was a powerful realization in my early teaching days. I would get so frustrated with students who would just give up and refuse to attempt anything. I saw it as lazy. Or obstinacy. But usually it was a form of self protection. You see, if we try and fail, it reflects upon on abilities. Whereas if we do not try, it only discloses our choices. I learned that in order to reach these students, I had to first convince them that they were worthy in spite of their failures. I found ways to build them up. To let them know that it was safe to try and fail; I would not ridicule mistakes and I would not allow other to either. And then I would find ways to create successes so that they could feel the joy of finally getting something right.
Failure means you’re learning. Starting over means you’re applying the lessons.
We may me more mature than those kids in some ways, but we also shy away from trying because of a fear of how it reflects upon us. We internalize failure rather than see it as a sign of growth. We want to play it safe, stay in known zone where the risks are not too great and the effort not too imposing. We look at the past effort as wasted and we fear starting over because it may lead to another dead end. But the reality is that nothing is ever wasted if you learn from it.
Starting over is overwhelming.
Whether it’s one of students having to re-do a page long problem or a person facing dating again after the end of a long marriage, starting over is hard. Very hard. It’s like taking your first step of thousands in a marathon – your leg is moving forward even as your brain is screaming, “Don’t! It’s impossible!” As with any feat of endurance, the trick is to focus on one step at a time. Starting over requires energy and if you’re mentally biting off more than you can chew, you’re exhausting your resources before you even begin.
When we focus only on the results, we grow frustrated. Celebrate the steps along the way.
I get a strange look from students when I praise their reasoning or skill on one step of a problem but still advise them that their answer is incorrect. “But, Mrs. Arends, I got it wrong. Why are you telling me I did something good?” Learning is a process. Starting over is a process. When we attach too much meaning to the outcome, whether it be a date or an algebra problem, we may miss the signs that we are getting better. So even when the results aren’t what you wanted, celebrate any signs of improvement.
Defeat only occurs when you give up. It’s better to change your goal than to throw in the towel.
In spite of the message put forth by the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality, not everybody can do everything. There are times that you may be trying to accomplish something that is beyond your reach and requires an endless amount of starting over. Rather than just give up completely, shift your goal to something you can do.
When we begin again, the possibilities are endless.
There is something about a blank slate that cultivates enthusiasm. It’s an empty canvas ready to accept whatever you put down. It’s easier to start from the actions of the past, rewriting what we have already tried. But this is your chance to do something new. Different. If one way didn’t work, toss it out and play around with another. If you allow it, starting over can have a sense of playfulness. Curiosity. Wonder and excitement.
Starting over is not doing the same thing again. Starting over is a gift of being able to apply the wisdom of your past to create the image of your future.
Try. You just might amaze yourself with what you can do.