The Road Less Taken: New year resolutions and the courage to fail

As we head into 2018, it is the time of New Year resolutions being put to the test. Many, if not most of us, will fail. According to Forbes, only 8 percent of us will achieve our New Year resolutions, and this is mainly because people give up when they have a few setbacks and lose their willpower. But what if failures and setbacks were part of the plan?

Breaking down bad
While writing my next book, ‘The Danish Way of Education; Life Lessons from the Happiest People in the World’, I explore among other things how the courage to fail is woven into the schooling curriculum in Denmark. Some schools actually have ‘try and fail’ as part of their mission statement.

Speaking to Linea Thorsen, a high school student from Jutland, I learned that her teacher highly encouraged mistakes. He used bad papers as examples for the class to focus on together, rather than the perfect papers.

The basis is that we can learn much more from what we do wrong than what we do right. According to Linea, the kids didn’t feel bad or embarrassed because it was just seen as normal practice. This inadvertently encourages vulnerability and empathy, which creates more connection rather than disconnection in competition.

A little less perfect
Camilla Semlov, a Danish social worker and family counsellor, told me about her daughter who was extremely academic and worked hard not to make errors at school. Her teacher said she shouldn’t try so hard not to make mistakes. It became part of her goal plan.

“The teacher said she needed to be a little less perfect,” Camilla recounted. “She believed she would be happier if she didn’t try to be perfect – and she was.”

The drive for perfection, after all, can be the basis for anxiety and a host of other problems. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the rising anxiety epidemic among teens in America is, in fact, tied to a fear of failure and lack of resilience.

Happy in failure
What if we expected failure, rather than rejected it, so that when we fall down we get back up and keep going? This is the crux of resilience, which has been proven to be a cornerstone of happiness. Could this be one of the reasons Denmark consistently scores so high in the World Happiness Report – that they have more reasonable expectations that don’t include perfection?

So, this year I am adding one caveat to my typical list of resolutions, and that is the courage to fail. That means that on the days I don’t manage to fulfil my goals and find myself falling into the trap of ‘I can’t’ or using negative labels, I will see those setbacks as opportunities.

I will reframe those obstacles into important learning blocks to climb over and jump off from. As long as our compass stays calibrated with the end goal and our true selves, no storm or rough patch can stop us from getting to where we want to be eventually.

As Thomas Edison famously said about discovering the light bulb: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Failing can be an illumination if we choose to see it that way.