The Gift of Failure

By Lisa Rappaport, Ph.D.

AT A GLANCE

Despite years of encouragement and support from her parents, Lisa Rappaport was flunking out of high school • Only after reaching rock bottom, was she able to find the resilience within and the courage to go forward


Almost everyone experiences failure at some point in their life.How a person handles failure is the key to future success. If it devastates the person and renders him/her immobile it could have a long lasting negative impact; if, on the other hand, it is viewed as a learning experience or an obstacle, it can be a way to develop flexibility and it can be a gift.”   —Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free

Lisa-R-websiteFrom the time I was a baby my mother dressed me up in Penn State t-shirts and talked about how one day I would go to college where she did. She was a huge fan and continued to watch the football games throughout her life.

But as the years passed, her pitch changed. By high school, academics had become a real struggle. I began to hate school and wanted to quit. Penn State was no longer mentioned. “Miami University has basketweaving,” my mother would say. “Just go to college and major in basketweaving.” She always said you need a college degree so when you’re at a party and someone asks where you went to college you had an answer. “People rarely ask what you majored in,” she noted.

As I continued to struggle academically and begged to quit school (I was only 14), the discussion changed again. “Just go to college for one semester,” she pleaded. “People don’t ask where you graduated from. They ask where you went. If you can just go for one semester, you can tell them you went to college.”

Downward Spiral

By the time I was 16, I had repeated Spanish as well as Algebra. I barely passed Biology and was failing Chemistry. I was an emotional nightmare. I had tutors in every subject. I was up until all hours studying, and I was still failing too many classes. My PSAT scores were abominable, and although I was told I could have extra time, I would have to take the test separately from my friends, and I didn’t want to do that.

I was miserable and miserable to be around. My mom’s pleas changed again: “Just get a high school diploma. Even the people who work the cash register at the supermarket have a high school diploma,” she would say.

One Friday I was called into the dean’s office, where I was told that if my grades did not improve, I would be asked to leave. She told me I had to try harder. When I explained how regimented my schedule was, how I got home from school at 3:30, had a snack and started with tutors at 4:00, she didn’t believe me. My tutor was with me for so many hours, he had dinner at our house every night, and my dad would drive him home at midnight. My mom and I then started my History and English homework. My dean said, “You are either not trying hard enough or you are stupid. Which is it?”

Hitting Rock Bottom

I left school that day in a full meltdown. The conversations at home changed again. “Quit,” my mom said. “I can’t take it anymore. You are 16. You can legally quit, so do it. Maybe one day you can get a high-school equivalency diploma, but I am done forcing you.” Those were the words that changed everything.

I knew I had failed. Not only did my school not want me for my senior year, but my mom was finished too.

In the throes of an all-night crying jag, I thought long and hard about the pain I was experiencing. That was when I realized things were now different. I had nothing left to lose. I had failed in my dean’s eyes and in my parents’ eyes. I had hit rock bottom. I had nowhere else to go.

Ironically, I slowly began to feel better, almost liberated. Since I had nothing to lose, no more goals, I could not go any lower. I had failed. With no more pressure, suddenly I was free to try anything.

That weekend I knew I had to make a decision. My mom was not going to wake me for school Monday. I decided I would prove to my dean that I was not stupid. I would go back one day as Dr. Rappaport. I would also try to find a way to work with children who were like me—dyslexic and misunderstood. I wanted to grow up to be a psychologist who could work with schools and advocate for children just like me.

The Gift of Failure

Freedom is the unlikely outcome of failure. Once you’ve failed you’re free to take risks and dream your wildest dreams because you have nothing left to lose. That was my first lesson in resilience. I decided the only way to face the nightmare was to learn to laugh at myself and not take myself so seriously.

I got through high school, and my dean made sure to tell me that I was ranked 43 out of 45 graduating seniors. I couldn’t get into my first-choice college right out of high school, but I figured it was fantastic that I was even going to college. I eventually applied to the college of my dreams and was accepted. I had learned grit. I was never going to take no for an answer.

Failing gives you guts to carry on. If you fail again, it’s OK because you learn from it and move on. When I graduated from high school I felt that I could set any goal and achieve anything. I knew it might take me longer than my age mates to reach my goals, and I would have to work harder along the way. I knew there might be doors that closed, but I would keep trying until I succeeded.

Today I am Dr. Rappaport, a neuropsychologist who works with students just like I was. I consider my early failure the gift that gave me the courage and confidence to persevere to reach my goals.

When Children Fail

Each child is different and will find resilience in his own way, but do not be afraid to help. While children want independence—and parents want that for them— helping your child through a difficult patch will not result in lifelong dependence.

It’s important to guide your child when he encounters insurmountable obstacles he may view as failure. He needs to be taught coping mechanisms such as humor, relaxation, and most important what his strengths are.

Give him what he needs to succeed at that particular time. Make sure he’s plugged into activities he’s good at so he can counter “failures” with successes that will help his fragile self-esteem.

And don’t forget to approach things with a sense of humor. Tell him you’ll save that abysmal report card because one day when he’s successful, you can laugh about it together—and you will.

Lisa Rappaport, a member of the Smart Kids Professional Advisory Board, is a neuropsychologist, specializing in the treatment of children with LD, ADHD, and developmental disorders. She is also an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. To learn more about Dr. Rappaport access her website at http://drlisarappaport.com/index.php

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