Some time ago now, I found myself for the first time having to write an extended thesis in order to fulfill my requirements for advancement to 4th Dan. While this blog isn't the place to share that particular document in its entirety, I do think it is appropriate for me to share pieces of it here. The basic topic of the the thesis was testing, and here I would like to share my thoughts on what too often seems to be a taboo word and a taboo subject in the realms of martial arts tests: Failure.
Fear of Failure
The possibility of failure must be present in any test, or it cannot truly be called a test. Beyond the possibility of failure, however, a good test includes the fear of failure as well. Fear in and of itself is not a bad thing. It can, in fact, be a powerful motivator towards positive change. We become stronger through facing our fears, not by ignoring or attempting to remove them. The trend today, however, seems to be towards removing any perceived unpleasantness from our young people’s experiences. Columnist Tucker Carlson writes:
Not all of life’s experiences are positive. Many are downright unpleasant, even painful, and always have been. What’s new is the attempt to prohibit those experiences.1
In so doing, we are doing our children harm. One of the established needs for testing to fill is the need to confront and understand our weaknesses. If we do not confront our fears, and in particular the fear of failure, we can never truly face or come to terms with these weaknesses. In short, fear is a necessary human motivator, and the fear of failure is a necessary component of a good test.
The fear of failure has been a trait common to all people throughout history. It stems from the life and death experiences of our distant ancestors, the so called ‘dangers of the hunt’, in which failing meant serious injury or even death.2 Later, as Rites of Passage became more formalized and controlled, failure to succeed in meeting the objective of the rite meant denial of acceptance into the adult community. With failure came consequences, and it was these consequences of which people were fearful. Today there is a trend towards lessening or complete removal of consequences. At one time, failure at tests in schools meant a dire combination of consequences for the child. At school, the failure would, at the least, result in a loss of points toward an overall score, lowering the student’s chance of passing a subject overall. At home, parental disapproval was virtually guaranteed. These and other consequences worked together to ensure that the student would not want to repeat the process. Today, however, the consequences are often removed or lessened. Parents more and more often confront teachers over failing grades, rather than support them. Schools themselves allow students to take tests as many times as they need to in order to pass, where the end result is no consequence for the initial failure, and in fact a reward of a passing grade in the end. With waning support from the community and families, schools are beginning to find out that the consequences they do try to implement have little effect on the students. The fear of consequences is not reinforced outside of the schools, and the fear of failure is beginning to disappear. Attempts to combat this trend are not working as planned.
We have discussed the fact that with failure must come consequences. Removal of these consequences is a problem. It is, however, only half of the problem. Attempts to recreate some sense of a fear of failure have been centered solely on consequences, making them consistently harsher. So-called ‘zero tolerance’ policies are being put in place in schools and places of employment throughout society, in which failure is automatically coupled with harsh consequences, and repeated failure is accompanied with immediate removal. In these situations, failure is the end of the road. Consequences must be in place, true, but they must serve as motivators towards positive change. This cannot happen if the consequences of failure are not coupled with opportunity. Failure must not be viewed as the end of the road, but the beginning. We often will learn more from our failures than from our successes, but only if the opportunity for future success exists.
People who fail to succeed at a test, life experience, or other situation, must be actively encouraged to face, understand, and accept the consequences of their failure, rather than simply be left to those consequences without further assistance. In this way, and only in this way, can we fully prepare them to face the test again, hopefully with a different result. Testing a second time without first facing the initial consequences accomplishes little or nothing in the long run. We do not encourage success by removing the consequences of failure, nor do we encourage success by forcing people to deal with those consequences unaided. Lao Tzu tells us: “In pursuing their affairs, people often fail when they are close to success.”3 This occurs when people are left to face the consequences of failure with no help and do not recognize the chance to correct the initial mistakes they made. Aikido instructor and author Kensho Furuya states:
We do not fail because we make mistakes, we fail because we do not make mistakes correctly.
The common person turns his mistake into a bigger mistake. The wise man turns his mistake into an advantage.4
We must encourage students to accept the consequences of their failure, but never to accept the failure itself. We must help them to see that failure is not the end of the road, but merely a step along the longer road to success.
A good test is one that has consequences for failure. A complete test, however, includes a mechanism for the test-taker to come to acceptance of the consequences of failure and confront the test again. We must recreate a sense of danger associated with failure. Without that sense, without that fear, there is ultimately nothing learned from failure. It becomes an acceptable result. This cannot be allowed. We must push students beyond their failures. By forcing them to confront the consequences of their failures, we force them to accept the fear of a second failure, but also to now work through that fear to a point where failure is no longer an acceptable outcome. We must force today’s students to confront their fear of failure.
In some instances, the fear of failure has been too far removed from the martial arts tests of today. This happens when students see everyone pass every test and assume that passing the test is automatic. The basic concept is that no one who is not ready to be tested should be allowed to test, and therefore everyone passes. There is nothing wrong with this idea as a concept, but many time ideal concepts are difficult to translate into the "real world", and when instructors do not warn students and parents that the possibility of failure is very real, or when they allow unprepared students to ‘slide by,’ problems begin to appear. Martial arts instructors today have been accused of ‘giving away’ and even ‘selling’ belts. These phrases imply that the belts given to students were never actually earned through passing a challenging test. We must strive never to allow ourselves to do this, or we remove a critical component of a complete test.
The martial arts test must remain a test with clear and tangible consequences for failure. Rather than serving as a method of punishment, these consequences exist in order to drive students towards positive changes. Failure in a martial arts test will result from a lack of mental, physical, or spiritual preparation and development. Any one of these can cause the failure, but all failures of the martial arts test result in one major consequence: no promotion to the next level. This consequence has a tangible component in that the student who fails the test does not receive a new belt, stripe, or certification, but perhaps it is the more intangible results that really make the difference. As martial artists advance in rank, new levels of authority, status, privilege, and responsibility are (or at least should be) conferred. The student who fails his or her test will find that his or her own levels in each of these areas remain the same. Nothing is taken away from the student, but nothing is gained either. It is the lack of advancement in these intangible areas that students should fear most, and this then becomes the driving force for positive development. Instructors will fuel this motivation by helping students learn from their failures, thereby teaching the next generation to confront these failures and use them as motivation rather than to simply accept them. Students learn to have a healthy amount of fear of failure, but are constantly encouraged to confront and overcome that fear. Only once they have done so can it be said that they have truly earned the status that comes with advancement in rank.
Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.
1. Carlson, Tucker. (2002). “Go Ahead, Hurt My Feelings,” Reader’s Digest, August, p. 46.
2. ‘Dangers of the Hunt’ concept taken from Pinnock, Don. (1996). “Gangs Guns, and Rites of Passage,” Conflict Resolution Notes, Fall p. 8.
3. Lao Tzu, trans. by Victor H. Mair. (1990). Tao Te Ching New York: Bantam Book), p. 35.
4. Furuya, Kensho. (1996). Kodo: Ancient Ways Santa Clarita, CA: Ohara Publications, Inc., p. 139, and p. 144.