5 lessons about failure from my life with learning disabilities

When you have learning or thinking differences, everyone wants to talk about success. But sometimes it’s just as important to talk about failure.

The anxiety that comes with failure can be paralyzing when you grow up with , 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 thinking differences, 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 PhD. But I was once just a child with learning disabilities, who felt like an imposter.

Here are five lessons from my life about failure that I hope can help you (and your child, if you’re a parent or caregiver.)

1. Fail small.

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 the 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 kids to take risks and try new things — even if they may not be the best at something.

2. Resize goals.

Sports also helped me realize that “winning” wasn’t the only goal I could shoot for. I could focus on whatever I wanted to accomplish. In school, I might have failed to get the grade I wanted on a test. But I could succeed if I resized my goals.

For instance, for my math test, I set a goal to put aside an hour every day to study. Done. I set a goal to ask my teacher questions on the review day before the test, and to ask if I could go over the test with her after the test. Done and done. I then asked a friend who was good at math if he could help me after school before the next test. Done.

Even though I didn’t get an A on the test, I was proud of myself for studying and asking for help. I accomplished smaller goals that ended up improving my math skills, which made me feel successful.

3. 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.

4. Find role models.

When I was growing up, I didn’t have role models with learning and thinking differences. I’d heard of actors and business leaders with different disabilities, but I never had enough information to look up to them. With the internet, that’s changed.

Today, there are so many success stories about famous people with learning and thinking differences. Almost everyone who has found success talks about overcoming failures. It can really help to find out how other people handled setbacks in their lives.

I’m most inspired by ordinary people who struggle and excel every day with learning and thinking differences. I love seeing stories about high school and college students, as well as recent graduates (more than famous people), who are overcoming their challenges.

5. Practice self-compassion.

Finally, none of us are perfect, and that’s OK. We will fail many times every year throughout our lives. That doesn’t make us less than others.

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 opportunities to learn how to improve in the future.

Learn about how to use a competence anchor to overcome fear of failure in school. Take these steps to find your strengths. And read what experts suggest doing if someone says “I’m dumb.”


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