Research scientist Collin Diedrich, Ph.D. recounts his childhood days struggling to succeed in school with learning differences:
The anxiety that comes with failure can be paralyzing when you grow up with learning disabilities, like I did. It’s that gut-wrenching feeling when it’s your turn to read aloud in class, and you know you’ll mess up the simplest words. Or the self-blame that follows a poor grade on a math test, even after you studied hours more than your classmates.
When you have learning and attention issues, you fail a lot in school. Each failure compounds the anxiety from the last, until you get to the point where you want to stop trying. It’s just too painful to fail again.
How do we not give up? How do we keep trying and getting up after being knocked down so many times?
I feel like I can answer this because all the successes in my life were built on a mountain of failures. Today, I’m a scientist with a Ph.D. But I was once just a boy with learning disabilities who felt like an imposter.
Learning from failure may be the most important skill for those who possess the resilience — the true grit — to overcome any challenge. Writing for Understood, Dr. Diedrich relays five lessons from his life about how to use failure constructively to ultimately succeed, starting with learning not to sweat the small stuff:
Since setbacks are inevitable, we need to be ready for them. I’ve found it’s helpful to have experience with failure in low-stakes situations, where it’s not a big deal if things don’t work out. That can take away the fear of bigger failures.
For me, athletics helped me “fail small.” I was always average or below average in most of the sports I took part in—like running. I was never the star or first-place finisher. Sometimes I even finished close to last.
Don’t get me wrong—it hurt not to win. But it was only a race. I learned it was OK to not be the best, and I learned to take failures in stride.
I also found out something more important. I found I enjoyed the practice and the process of getting better at sports. By experiencing (and later overcoming) small failures in athletics, I gained resilience to not give up when faced with bigger challenges in school.
That’s why it’s important to encourage your child to take risks and try new things—even if your child may not be the best at something.
Learn from, but don’t dwell on the negatives. After all, learning differences are fairly common, affecting between 10-20% of schoolchildren in America. Today, there is a better understanding of the differences in which people learn and lots of strategies and technological tools to help them:
Learn from setbacks.
Another thing I did was to stop focusing on the failure, and instead start focusing on how to do better. I realized that if I studied for hours for a test but did poorly, then maybe I needed to change how I studied.
I discovered that I needed to spend time studying in a less distracting environment. And because I have trouble reading, I benefited from text to speech. I also needed help remembering what teachers said during class, so I bought a digital recorder. We all are capable of learning—we just need to figure out the best way we learn!
No one is perfect, Dr. Diedrich reminds us. We all experience failure from time to time so it’s important to not be too hard on ourselves when things don’t go the way we had planned:
The biggest lesson I learned was to give myself a break when I struggled. Being compassionate toward our kids and ourselves is important if we’re going to overcome failure. And we can use our experiences as an opportunity to learn how to improve in the future.
Read the rest of Dr. Collin Diedrich’s “5 Lessons About Failure From My Life With Learning Disabilities” here.