Life Lessons: The Value of Failure


Said the Philosopher Epictetus, “It is not things themselves that disturb us, but rather our perception of their significance.”

Humans make mountains from molehills. We fret about trivial things, like inclement weather or a blundered job interview. We worry lots, often impractically.

Sometimes, moments we think are catastrophes really aren’t all that awful, despite our perception of their significance.

For example: failure. Failing something is disheartening, but it’s not an excuse to give up. Failure is an opportunity to learn. It's our template for future success.

There is value in failure, and significance in persistence.

Here Is A Story.


This is a story about a young boy who, many years ago, taught me the meaning of perseverance in the face of failure....

Back in the summer of 2012, during my time teaching city pool swim lessons, I had a student named Derek. 
He was younger than the other kids, smaller, and sporting a ridiculous bleach-blonde bowl cut. 
This was my level 3 class, the midlevel swimmers. He was barely a level 2. I spent more time keeping him from sinking than actually teaching him. 
Despite all odds against him, though, Derek was driven, seizing every opportunity to fling himself from the pool wall to the depths, trying and trying to make the whole ‘swimming’ thing work. His efforts were in vain, but he never stopped trying.

At the end of the summer, after the final lesson, Derek’s parents came to chat.. 
I didn’t like being out of the water. It was freezing, and I was self-conscious about my chubby body. A shivering, jiggling high schooler doesn’t exactly inspire greatness.
Even so, it was important to me, as the coach, that I do everything possible to help my students, even if that meant a few uncomfortable moments of half-nude conversation. So be it.

On that final day of lessons, Derek’s father shook my hand, smiled, and pulled a framed picture from Derek’s swim bag.
“Derek wanted you to have this.” 
It was a photo of me, and standing beside me was my co-instructor. In front of both of us was Derek, sporting that bowl cut and smiling as always. 

Derek himself ran up next, hugged me tight, grinning wider than ever.
“One day, I’ll be a big strong swimmer like you. I’m going to keep practicing. Thanks, Coach Ethan.”
I smiled too. 
Suddenly, I didn’t feel all that bad about standing out in the open.

The very next summer I returned to the pool to visit some friends. Derek was now in level 4.

He was the best swimmer of them all.

Ethan and Derek.jpg

There's Moments That Shape Us.

There are pivotal points in time that help us define who we are, and who we are to become. The world tries to break us, and it will if we let it. If we choose to accept the hardships for what they are, we can begin to see our failures as chances for growth... not personal calamities.

It's not the things themselves that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.