Failing Your Way to Hopefulness
This weekend, my son taught me how to train your brain for hopefulness by failing at something over, and over, and over, and over again.
This is something new for our family and something that I never thought I would see happen. It was also something I never understood personally, because I was taught never to fail. Failure = weakness and that you are a bad person. Failure = shame the person into doing better next time.
I want to share with you how we, as a family, reframed our understanding of failure, and how we learned to cultivate hopefulness.
Recently, I have loved listening to Dr. Brene Brown’s audio book, “The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion, and Connection.” My husband, son, and I have all listened to it together and talked about what we already do, and where we would like to improve as a family.
Dr. Brown talks about different guideposts in parenting and life, such as vulnerability, shame, joy and gratitude, etc... In the guidepost on hope, she talks about how hope is not an emotion; hope is a way of thinking about ourselves in the world, it is a cognitive process. She says that hopefulness is a key component to people who live wholehearted lives (people who engage in their lives from a place of worthiness, where they feel a sense of love and belonging), and yet she sees a declining level of hopefulness in kids today. The definition of hopefulness that Dr. Brown uses is based on C.R. Snyder’s work on hope which shows that hopefulness is “the ability to set a goal, to find innovative ways of getting there, and then to have agency- the belief that we can do this,… and being able to come up with alternative routes when things don’t go well.” (track 11) Dr. Brown then talks about how kids today are so hopeless because we do not teach them how to believe they can do something and come up with alternative routes to doing it when it does not work out the first time.
In the audio book, Dr. Brown tells a story of talking with Koren Motekaitis about how Motekaitis coaches her students to do a flip turn in swimming. She has the kids practice flip turns and she gives them a thumbs up or thumbs down after each attempt. The kids need to get five flip turns with a thumbs up in order to be done with practice. Recently, groups of parents have asked Motekaitis not to give their kids a thumbs down because that seems to harsh.
This is something I would have actually agreed with a few years ago when I did not understand that we can teach healthy striving and hopefulness, without being shaming about it. Now my views on this have changed. Dr. Brown talks about the feeling you get when you try something over and over again and you finally get it- when you get tons of “thumbs downs” and then get a “thumbs up.” Two components of hopefulness are perseverance and tenacity, which our kids are not learning if they never have “thumbs down to thumbs up” experiences.
My son is on a rock climbing team, and his coaches have been teaching him how to set your own goals and focus on cultivating your own tenacity, perseverence, and joy for the sport. His coaches don’t hide when he “fails” a climb, (in climbing, if you fall or can't complete a clim, it is called a "failed climb") but they talk about how to make a climb a “project.” A project is where you do a climb over and over and over again until you get to the top. There is no shame in failing. This is exactly what Dr. Brown talks about with cultivating hopefulness.
This weekend our son had his first rock competition of this year and I admit, I was nervous. Before, if he could not complete a climb on the first try, he stopped climbing. He fell into hopelessness, quickly, and with profound pain. The hopelessness started with the failed climb, and then it worsened into feeling hopeless about all things in his life. It was heartbreaking to watch.
In a rock climbing competition you do many climbs on different routes of different difficulty levels and after the end of three hours, your score is comprised of your top five climbs- the five climbs that had the highest amount of points. You get a higher number of points on a climb if you complete it on the first try, less on the second, less on the third, and so on. You can attempt a route as many times as you want.
This weekend, our son he did a climb he could not finished, and to my surprise, he climbed it again. Then he did not finish, and he climbed it again, and again, and again, until his muscles needed a break. Then he chose another hard climb and did it over and over and over again. He did not finish either of these two hard climbs. Instead, he did five easy climbs to get some points and qualify as having done the competition, and then he just focused on having fun with trying these two climbs over and over again, each time getting higher, or figuring out a better way to stay on the wall. Rather than falling into hopelessness, he had a great time and spent the day “thumbs downing” climbs over and over again, so that he would one day get a “thumbs up.”
Basically, our son spent all day practicing hopefulness. I have never seen someone do this before, he is really the first person to teach me this in real life. He practiced training his brain to think about himself differently in relation to the world. Our son reprogrammed the cognitive process of his brain towards hopefulness rather than hopelessness, all by failing over and over again, and it actually worked. He feels differently about himself now, he feels hopeful.