You’re Going to Fail

Yesterday morning the temperature was a rousing twelve degrees below zero. The air was still when I awoke, but the wind had howled throughout much of the night, forming graceful wave-like patterns in the accumulated snow. I love this weather, the cold not merely a factor but a force. There is an emotional quality to any weather, of course, but for me, nothing is so evocative as deep cold. I’m not sure why.

It has been a very long time since I’ve written about education, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Mostly I’ve been thinking about how my ideas have broadened and softened with time, not from any specific experience, but rather, I think, from an evolving understanding that rigidness in thought is a precursor to assumption. Or, as someone put it to me recently, a great deal of certainty leads to judgment, while an acceptance of uncertainty fosters compassion. And not merely for others, but for oneself. Naturally, this applies to so much more than one’s beliefs around education.

I think the homeschooling (and particularly those of us following an even less conventional path) community often finds itself a defensive posture, perhaps in no small part due to the certainty of others that our educational choices are not valid. And when one feels judged in such a manner, the most natural thing to do is to dig in, to deflect that judgment and with it – let’s be honest – the possibility of substance in the views behind that judgment. And so, rather than acknowledging our own uncertainty (and I know of very, very few home and unschoolers who do not at times experience uncertainty) and the inherent vulnerability that comes with uncertainty, we double down in the opposite direction.

(This may be patronizingly obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: This pattern is precisely why we find ourselves in such a divisive political landscape)

I say this with our older son having just completed a self-designed independent study program through a nearby high school, focused on guitar building and blues guitar playing. He loved it, and not just for the study itself, but for the opportunity to be part of the school community, albeit on a very part-time basis. He is currently designing an independent study for the coming semester around issues of climate justice and direct action, and I am incredibly grateful for the doors his advisor is opening for him, and the mentors who are offering their time and experience. An interesting aside: When it became clear that he wanted something more than what we could offer at home, we visited a half-dozen schools in the area (our town has school choice, which made all this possible). How shocking to experience the vast differences in offerings and overall “vibe” between these public schools, and how fortunate we feel to have found this unique program within reasonable driving distance.

I guess this isn’t really a post about education after all. It’s really just about certainty vs uncertainty, and therefore, judgment vs compassion. It is only now, late-learner that I am, that I’m coming to understand how being less certain can be liberating. And I think it’s liberating because it aligns with an inescapable truth: Life is uncertain. It is fraught and messy and beautiful and hard and I suppose the best thing we can do through it all is try to remain  compassionate and curious. We’re are going to fail at this, over and over and over. With our kids, with our partners, with our friends. With ourselves.

But failure too is good and important because it is also an inescapable truth. You can try all you want to avoid it, and indeed, this is what we are taught to do. So yeah, go ahead and try to avoid. But know this: You’re going to fail.




38 thoughts on “You’re Going to Fail”

  1. Ben, I truly love this one. Life is all those things – how we approach it, fail in it and recover and embrace it is education. All connected. Compassion is a way thru. What a great experience for your boy!

  2. We’ve homeschooled and public schooled, big schooled and tiny (3 grades in a room) schooled. I’ve worked professionally with home, un and public schooled kids. We’re all judgemental. We’re giving thought to what the others think. We’re more alike than many of us realize. And, we’d all be better off to do our own thing, be confident in what we do, and not care what the rest think because ya, we’re going to fail in someone’s eyes. Eh…that’s ok.

    1. “We’re giving thought to what others think.” I like that. How many times have I gotten all wound up about something simply because I’m assuming what someone else is thinking when, if it really matters, I should just ask them first because, of course, I really don’t know what they are thinking. “I get the feeling you are thinking so-and-so. Am I right?….” – that sort of thing. Thanks for the insight. 🙂

    2. That’s a good point, Robin. I guess I’m thinking of failure in terms of our perceptions of ourselves… I think that’s often the hardest to accept.


  3. Deep cold is a force, all right, but we know it will pass and give way to air you can actually smell. William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan, each in their certainty, unleashed the forces of conservatism and anti-FDR era ‘socialist’ policies. Which, you could argue, has brought us to where we are today. Uncertainty that leads to listening and studying and learning is good. But uncertainty in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence relative to the greenhouse effect is dangerous. Your son seems to understand that at his young age. Bravo.

  4. You can always count on uncertainty,
    it can be a great tool and comfort if applied correctly with awareness.

    I think the deep cold is evocative…. because it could kill you.

  5. Thanks Ben. Very well put.

    Some years ago a professional peer decided I was using too many power tools and was critical of my not adhering to the straight and narrow, as he was, as concerns traditional Japanese metalwork. The immediate effect of this was to put me on the defensive, even though we would tend to agree more often than not on all kinds of things.

    I have, in fact, always greatly admired the ways of working before power enhanced tool use and remain enchanted with the possibility of returning to those days. He remains self-righteous to an extreme degree and we no longer talk, even though our arcane interests intersect to such a degree that were most people overhearing they might think we were speaking a foreign language.

    It seems that the need to be correct often trumps(sorry) all other considerations. Sad…

    My working methods have always been eclectic, non-static and evolving. This involves, on a regular basis, doubt and uncertainty and yes, contradiction and paradox! I’m fine with all that.

  6. “Or, as someone put it to me recently, a great deal of certainty leads to judgment, while an acceptance of uncertainty fosters compassion.”

    Love this idea. I believe it’s true.

    The judgement serves us. It’s an evolutionary benefit. The question is: when to let it overwhelm us and when to put it aside? There is a choice. Sometimes extreme prejudice serves us. Most times it ruins us.

    Q. How can we, in the face of extreme prejudice, comport ourselves?

    I have a suggestion. What if we all sought out a person on the “other side” and had a conversation with them today? I think it would be good to exercise the compassion muscle. At first we’ll fail. I see us coming away from our respective conversations tense and frustrated. If we keep leaving the choir we will get better at it. Maybe compassion will be grow on the other “side”.

    In my previous life I read a lot of self help books that said somebody’s got to do it. Somebody has to rise above the conflict, have patience and understand the other. It was so frustrating to deal with a person who seemed to relish conflict and to even promote it. Boy, I did fail and had to leave. But maybe all conversations don’t have to end that way.

    1. Renee, walking away (or cutting with a sword of truth as Chögyam Trungpa talks in his “Myth of Freedom”) can very much be a ‘conversation’ and not a failure. Have you seen Brene Brown’s work on setting boundaries with integrity, generosity and compassion? E.g.: “I hear you, I care about you, AND this behavior is not all right with me”. She says for us as human beings it is impossible to be truly wholeheartedly compassionate towards someone who is violating our boundaries at the same time. In her newest book “Rising Strong” she also echoes Ben’s words:”If we are brave enough, often enough, we are going to fall”. I like the word FALL better than FAIL. Fall implies we are down, we learn, we get up, we go on. Fail implies an end, a limitation to learn, an imperfection.
      As far as conflict goes, what stuck most with me was work by John Paul Lederach on ‘Conflict Transformation’: http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/transformation
      His techniques, I think, are in line with principles that Buddhism and other religions teach: transformation through conflict.

      1. Good. This is good. Thank you. I will check this all out. I’m pretty sure I know what I will find and it will confirm.

        I have a reaction. Have you tried this with anyone who virulently opposes your world view? I have. It’s really, really hard when you approach them with hopes that they will hear you and understand your world view. People who live in their judgements usually don’t want to hear and understand. They want you to hear and understand them and as long as you go along with that program the conversation will avoid unpleasantness.

        I think all these writings have their place but they all seem to be preaching to the choir. I would like to hear from people who have a system for talking to unbelievably stubborn people. The closest one I ever found was Center for Non-Violent Communication in Oakland. I couldn’t afford their classes but they have been the closest to proposing ways that could work.

      2. Renee, yes I have lived with people with extremely different worldviews from my own. I do, on a daily basis. 🙂 I think we all feel that way at one point or another. And that is a blessing.
        Is it possible to have Bernie and Trump romping through the sunset holding hands, and the whole world singing Kumbaya, I do not know, sometimes I wonder about that. 🙂 But you would think it is possible to have them at one dinner table without too much food fighting while they learn something new about themselves and the other.
        I don’t want to take up too much space on Ben’s brilliant corner here, you can drop me a note at beehappeenow@yahoo.com

        I think there are really tons of very good tools out there these days. It is encouraging to see many men taking lead and sharing their failures and communication tools.
        What I had found helpful are the many tools and states that Buddhism and mindfulness teaches: beginner’s mind, understanding your own triggers, boundaries and needs (e.g. need for space), respecting the other’s boundaries and needs, connecting on the similarity not the difference, the letting go of any expectation of your ‘opponent’ and the extreme curiosity of their worldview, how does their view reflect on me. Looking at it through expansiveness not contraction. As Laderbach puts it in terms of NOT “either/or” but instead “Both+And”. Still, again, letting go of any outcome that your mind says it should be. As my one friend once said: accepting it all at once.

        Children help me. They always see through everything. In addition to my own incredibly perfectly stubborn children, sometimes I spend hours sitting in playgrounds watching kids play (one way join free classes 🙂 ). Notice how one child will run up to another, and will say: do you want to play my game? The second kid says: No! The first one may try a few more times. The younger they are, the more likely they will have absolutely no resentment. They run off, and start playing. The other kids will often join in.

  7. I’ve had similar experiences in discussing spirituality (by the way, I’m always saddened when people say you can’t talk about faith, spirituality or religion with others. What better topic to practice non-judgement. But then, I realize, I’m assuming that others believe as I do that judgement has no place in such conversations when I know good and well many, many people of all beliefs feel that it does. But, anyway…) When someone asks me very pointed, show-me-the-proof type questions, I have no problem saying, “I am comfortable knowing what I don’t know.” Whatever framework you use to view the world, I think there is a lot of peace to be found in that acceptance of uncertainty.
    So glad Fin has found an educational experience custom-made for him and his passions. Nice to hear of the many different opportunities to learn outside of the all-at-home or all-in-an-institutional-setting as the lines seem to be drawn much of the time. Peace and thanks for the post. 🙂

  8. I enrolled my daughter in an alternative school 1 day per week this year. This was proposed to me 3 years ago and my answer then was, “No way”. But life made things too hard, in our small nuclear family unit, and I was forced to change. 2 parents just aren’t enough to fulfill the social desires of some kids, especially when they no longer wear diapers. Took me too long to figure that out, and also that my daughter no longer wears diapers. I don’t know if I would call any of this ‘failure’ though. Life makes it hard to fail, even when we dig our heels in, it forces us to change. Expansion is the way of the world. Although I’ve seen old timers who have been the same frickin’ person for the past 40 years and I’m like, “How in the hell do they do that”????

    1. The experts say a person’s personality does not change throughout life, i.e., introvert, extrovert, optimist, pessimist, depressive, cautious, impulsive, etc. Of course, a person can take different paths, make different choices, decisions, even habits, depending on circumstances throughout life. But that’s different from personality.

      1. Ram Dass once said: “My thinking mind is a perfect servant and a lousy master”. I would go as far as extending that to “personality”, which can make a perfect servant or a lousy master. We are so much more than the thinking mind and personality, and we limit ourselves squeezing into those tight frames.

  9. Interesting post, and great comments! Last 9 months on the road and roadschooling has been so beneficial for me in extreme uncertainty training. Like driving in the middle of Riga, Latvia without a map, or GPS or knowledge where you are going, or speaking the language, with two impatient kids shouting in the back seat. 🙂 Counting on faith and humanity. And that means being ready some type of failure or another.

    When my 8 year old, always unschooled, announced that she wants to go to school, and does not want to live on any remote farms, or spend all her days hiking, I was like Tricia above – struggling for a while to accept the fact that she no longer wears diapers, or is interested in things I am interested in.

    I am glad Finn is finding what excites him. This country, I think is amazing in providing opportunities for growth, and very few limitations. I am very grateful for that. Over the last 2 weeks we visited some 8+ schools in two cities of Arizona, from charter schools with Waldorf, Montessori, super performance based, or super play oriented, 4-day schedules, public schools, private schools, catholic schools, big schools, small ranch schools, schools with chickens, and schools with laboratories… As you say, the ‘vibe’ is so different. It is also eye opening, more often than not, many who claim to be most ‘liberal, accepting’ or ’embracing child’s individuality’ are in fact most judgmental and regimented in subtle or not so subtle ways. . .

    1. Roadschooling! As Missouri’s native son said: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness…

      1. Indeed, travel can be quite an ego and entitlement crusher. 🙂 Shirley MacLaine said, “The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.”
        We enjoyed all things Mark Twain in the Mississippi River museum in Dubuque Iowa, very neat place.

      2. Personally? I think everyone should go somewhere out of their own country for a few months and especially to a country less advantaged than the US. Then this crap about Make America Great Again would disappear. We’re pretty darn great already and a lot of us don’t appreciate this. Could we be made Greater? You betcha!

  10. I feel that a lot of the nastiness in our country right now surrounding politics, parenting, school choices, and so many other things, comes not because people are afraid of failing, but because they refuse to allow others that opportunity. Failure, of any sort, has become this demon, the root of all evil. And everyone is certain he has the cure, so those who disagree must be corrected at all costs.

    Just my musings, occasioned by reading yours…

  11. I’m glad that Fin has found another interest to pursue. Seeing him play almost makes me want to break out the old Yamaha SA30 and see if I can remember how to play House At Pooh Corner.

    I think that people tend to stay where they are comfortable, which is why 37% of Americans live in the town/city where they were born and another 20% have moved from their birth place, but still live in the same state in which they were born. Even those who have moved more often have typically stayed within a geographic region of like-minded people. For anyone who is interested, Colin Woodard authored a book called “American Nations” that discusses 11 different “nations” in North America.

    While failure isn’t fun, it almost always provides a greater learning experience than success does.

  12. (Late coming into this, computer has been down.) Over the years we’ve been through the cycle: public school, “alternative” public school, Waldorf school, homeschooling. Pluses and minuses everywhere, but can confirm all you say about value of releasing certainty and defensiveness. (It seems to happen all by itself if you live long enough.) Meanwhile the kids grow up, and are mostly fine.

    And all along, like a steady hum, the dialog between judgment and compassion. The only issue, really. It’s good that you have taken it on–that will teach your kids more than anything else.

  13. I think it’s a mistake to believe if you try hard enough, if you find the right tools, if you’re patient and compassionate enough, you can have a meaningful dialogue with someone that doesn’t want to have that dialogue or that relationship or that give and take. I don’t think that’s pessimistic, just realistic.

    1. I suppose that old adage “Rome wasn’t built in a day” or “Brick by brick” might apply here. Eventually, with patience and stick-to-it-tiveness, something meaningful might be achieved.

      1. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

        Just one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.

  14. Hi Ben, I read this with real interest, as I’m a parent who’s tried a lot of educational avenues with my kids – Waldorf, unschooling, public school. I have one child incredibly happy where she’s at, and I’ve been aware for a while now that I’ve pretty failed education-wise with my older daughter. But recently she wrote what will likely be her final high school essay, and (as no lover of writing, this girl) she pulled it off with an insight and grace that I certainly never had as a teenager. So maybe she didn’t get the kind of education I wanted for her, but an entirely different education that I ought to step back from, and let her own, without my messy unresolved parenting desires. — I also really appreciate your remark that Vermont schools are so different, town to town. It’s not nearly widely acknowledged enough that the children of those who have little material or education means in Vermont tend to be offered a far more impoverished version of public education.

  15. I’m late to this, sorry, no connection at all for the last several days. Ben, can you expand on what “school choice” means? It sounds terribly different from the public school systems around here. Thanks.
    And thanks for the reminder about open-mindedness, uncertainty, and listening.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s