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I never felt dumb until I wrote a thesis

I always thought I was academically capable (not the smartest but able to get the work done) and then I started postgrad. At the time, my supervisor asked me if I had ever taken a writing course?

To which I replied: “No I haven’t taught one but I’d be open to it”

Her reply: “No, I meant for your writing. It needs a lot of work”

Cue feeling both embarrassed and awful. I thought my writing was good. I realised it wasn’t, and it only took me a few years to come to terms with the whole writing-as-a-process thing. Through that journey though, I learnt an awful lot about what it feels like to fail. Yes, I had failed plenty of other times, but writing a thesis is a special kind of painful that you get to experience over several years!

Admitting fault or failure is not something a lot of us feel comfortable with. There is a fear of judgement from others or concern about what the implications are for our personal or professional identity if we admit we stuffed up. And yet, it is often the people who are most capable of owning up to their mistakes that helps them go on to improve and do things better next time. Whether you have noticed it or not, throughout these blog posts, I have shared plenty of stories of things that I have messed up, not done as well as I hoped or been disappointed with. Want to see a live example play out? Watch the video I did with the Teeny Tiny Stevies where you can literally see the fear in my eyes as multiple aspects of technology failed (https://fb.watch/qB4v55eEsc/).

How then do we try to normalise failing and how can we support our kids with this?

– Fail loudly. When you mess something up, own it and acknowledge it

– Manage the emotion of the problem. The hardest part of failing is coming to terms with the emotional or practical cost of this. So support your child (or yourself) to manage the impact of the failure on how they feel. If appropriate, you might also then be able to problem-solve what you could do

– Put it in perspective. Alongside the point above, it can be helpful to put the failure in context. Is it actually that bad? Does it just FEEL that bad? And if it is that bad, is it something that can be recovered from?

– Practice failing. We (and kids) so often give up on something because we are not doing as well as we would like to. Being able to persist with something because it has value to you is a great skill. It helps us re-frame what failing actually is (i.e. are you failing or just not doing it as well as you want?) and the fact that it is ok to just try things

– You’re not a ninja. And we all know ninjas are pretty good at a whole range of stuff! So maybe something just wasn’t your thing? Maybe you want to be better at it or maybe you don’t really care and now you know something else about yourself?

You will be glad to know that I DID hand in that thesis. My supervisor was proud. I was proud. And that work is being translated into about 47 languages. Which is ironic because I probably nearly gave it all up about 47 x 47 times!

This is general advice only – please get some specific support to address your needs. At ConnectEd Counselling and Consultancy, we believe that all families, and the communities they belong to, benefit from a little extra care and support. Whether the problems are big or small, we want to make sure everyone has the chance to feel connected – to themselves, to others and to their community. We offer counselling services to young people and families and have immediate availability. If you need some support, get in touch here: https://connectedcc.com.au/book-now/

(Written by Dr Matt O’Connor)

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