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Failure and Butterflies

Success and Failure. Are they real?

This is me.

Nobody has ever labelled me a failure. But then nobody has ever labelled me a success either. This is good, I think it’s healthy.

I think about success and failure a lot and the impact it has on us. I see children stressed over exams, big kids determined to prove to little kids that they are better at something, the youngest throwing tantrums when they can’t do what they want, because they don’t see the potential harm.

Not wanting to add to this whole success and failure game I’ve had to really consider if our way of working is in the children’s best interests and I surprised myself to discover that not only do I not care if they succeed or fail at tasks, I’m not even sure what success or failure would be. A lot of what we do at the Academy involves setting challenges… Can you build a LEGO boat that floats? Can you make a cake without an adult’s help? etc. But there are no consequences if they can’t or expectations that they can. The value isn’t based on achievement it’s on the process of taking part.

It’s tempting to value yourself in comparison to others… I was above average at school and Uni, considerably above average at anything creative but there are also things I’ve never done well. My ‘failure’ is usually rooted in poor memory. I remember (ironically) trying to learn lines for plays and having help from friends. My entire friendship circle would have learnt my lines before I did, just from the number of times each of them had tried to help me recite them. And modern languages… oh my poor French teacher was astonished that I managed to consistently score 0 on vocab tests. She’d give me lines which I would diligently complete despite my frustration that she didn’t believe I had tried the first time around. Then she would retest me and I‘d still somehow get 2/25. But none of this ever felt like failure because I still found ways to win. OK so maybe not with the languages, it’s still a mystery to me how I left school with a GCSE in German … I just don’t remember how. No academic school report that begins "she is a pleasant young lady" is going to end well...

I learnt to think beyond my forgotten lines on the stage and to improvise in front of an audience. Not knowing the exact words often gave me an edge as I was focussed on understanding the character so that I could say what they would say and it was a much more believable performance (I still feel bad for making children cry as the Wicked Witch of the West in the school play … perhaps sometimes it was too believable). Fortunately, the rest of the cast were talented enough to let me get away with this using their strengths to steer the play in the direction the script intended.

And as I moved on through music college I found other ways around my poor memory. There was a rule for pianists that if you were performing works written pre 1940 you were expected to do so from memory. If I’d spoken up about my inability to remember anything I’m sure an allowance could have been made but I didn’t. Instead I specialised in works written after 1940. As nobody could realistically remember the complexity of these works under pressure, nobody ever questioned my performing with a score. ‘Failure’ averted. As I’ve told you my Kryptonite I’m sure you won’t mind me bragging that interpreting and performing complex scores became something of a super power for me. I found something I could do exceptionally well because of something I really struggled with.

The thing about failure is that there’s no fixed point. There never has been. You can’t be a failure. You can’t even fail. It’s just an emotion that you can feel when you compare what you’ve done. And actually… you can’t compare yourself to anything, not truly, there are too many ifs and buts.

But if (and yes that was deliberate) you do challenge yourself you will find out who you are and what you love and oh boy, you will have so much fun along the way. If there’s one thing that powers through all our work at Academy of FUN! it is to have a go and to enjoy it. We have no other expectations.

If, like me, you’re likely to forget this article or indeed have already forgotten the bit above, that’s OK. Just try to think of butterflies when you think of failure because Chuang Tzu put it so much more eloquently than me:

“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over; it became a butterfly.”

Kate Badger, Chief Ambassador of FUN!

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