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When failure is a good thing

Dr. Sylvester Perez1

September 3, 2013

Dear SAISD Staff,

Wow! The enthusiasm displayed at this year’s Convocation was unsurpassed. Now, the challenge is to sustain the energy throughout the school year. As they say, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon.

Today's message is about redefining success, viewing it through a new lens.

You may have seen a recent interview with Sara Blakely, the world's youngest self-made billionaire. After graduating from Florida State University, she planned to become an attorney, like her father. However, after failing the LSAT twice, she instead found herself working at Disney World and an office supply company, where she sold fax machines door-to-door. Having been forced to wear pantyhose in the hot and humid Florida climate, she cut off the feet of her hose while wearing open-toed shoes. The experiment was unsuccessful because her pantyhose continuously rolled up her legs.

Eventually, after several "failures," Blakely found the right material for footless body-shaping pantyhose, wrote her own patent and incorporated her company under the name SPANX. The 42-year-old failed countless times and was told “No” time and time again. Yet, she was resilient.

And that may have something to do with the biggest gift that her father gave her and her brother. In the TV interview, she recalled how her dad asked one question at the end of each day: "What did you fail at doing today?" It’s an unusual gift, right? Blakely recalled that she tried out for something at school one day and was horrible. Her Dad’s response when she later told him?

"Give me a high five,” he had said, and they both laughed.

You see, Dad redefined success by teaching his children that it's not about winning or losing. Nor is it about accolades. It’s about always trying without the fear of failure to hold you back. The only true failure is NOT trying something.

At a recent training for our school board, the facilitator asked our team of eight, myself included, to recall which teacher made the biggest difference in our lives. Every trustee mentioned someone who had been a disciplinarian and had set high expectations – teachers who had ensured that they reached their full potential. 

Newly elected Trustee Art Valdez told a story about a pivotal moment in an electronics class he took back when he attended Burbank High School. Art’s teacher, Mr. Reininger, had assigned a project that would be a large percentage of the final grade. Art felt confident that his project was perfect and that he would receive an A for the course. Likewise, Mr. Reininger approached his prized student feeling confident that the project would be a success.

But when the teacher asked Art to flip on the project switch, the project blew up. After seeing the sparks fly, a dejected Art just knew that he would not ace the class, and at that point, was hoping just to pass it. To his surprise, he received an A in the class!

You see, Mr. Reininger gave credit to all the things that Art had done correctly instead of focusing only on the one crosswire mistake. Art will tell you that earning that A after the mishap was a defining moment in his life.

The point is that it is okay to fail at something – because it means that you stepped outside of your comfort zone and tried something new. This is a personal philosophy that encourages one to stop playing it safe every once in a while. I’m not suggesting that we make reckless decisions but, rather, that we take a calculated risk to try something new.

Let’s take a lesson from what Sara Blakely's father taught her: You should set high expectations for yourself and let go of the fear of failure. Let’s continue to motivate and encourage our students to reach their full potential by rewarding effort and risk-taking. We, as the adults and role models to our students, should strive to be risk-takers ourselves.

In short, this year, let's start to redefine success.

Dr. Sylvester Perez

“In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure.” – Bill Cosby



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