Tuesday, May 27, 2014

It's Better To Try and Fail, Than Never To Try At All

“I don't sing because I'm happy. I'm happy because I sing.”  ~ William James
Today I volunteered in my daughter's first grade classroom as I have every Tuesday this school year. This is the last week of school and I was tired from being very busy yesterday, so I almost didn't go. I didn't really want to go. But I did go. And now I'm very happy I did.

My weekly job is to go over their spelling words. Now the irony of this hit me square between the eyes from the get go, because, while I have been a teacher for sixteen years (college - so pedagogy is emphasized differently at that level) I have always been an atrocious speller! I blame this on my pedigree - my father's dyslexia, my own tendencies in that direction, and my Irish upbringing of verbal story telling - and my father was the BEST teller of wild tales (and a brilliant writer, though he was shy about that because he knew his spelling short comings) there ever was. I still hope and pray that someday he will, from the heavens, bestow that skill and heritage on me.

But, getting back to my point...

Today I went over the last of the "first grade words" list that each kid had not quite mastered. Some were incredulous: "I'm already on second grade words" they protested. "well, that's great, but you also need to know these too." I tried to explain. And when they get the word 'she' wrong, the response is 'Oh. I know that. I just forgot" with a look in their eye pleading with me to star that word and give them credit. Ah, kiddos, not everything works that way.

Do we want to just 'get it right' or do we really want to 'know' something???

So, today I work with one little boy who I have not worked with much because he is often with a para when I'm there. He has a long list of words to work through. And I will confess, at first I am not optimistic.

We work through the list, and then we get to the word 'hope'.
His eyes travel around the room. He watches some of his classmates going through a Lego catalog (Yes. reading it. Reading is reading.). And then he sighs. He has tried every word thus far.

Some he's gotten starred and others I add to sticky notes for him to take to study.

He looks at me and says, "Oh. I don't know that one."
I reply. "Okay. Try. You know the sounds. You can figure this out from what you do know"
He then looks into my eyes, and smiles. And slowly sounds out the letters, adding that "bossy 'e'" at the end.
"YES!" fist bump - and then I say to him, "If you don't try, you can't get it right. It's better to try and get it wrong then not to try at all. If you don't try then you always get it wrong."
And he tries every word that follows.

Some he gets starred, some get added to sticky notes. But he tries the rest.

Hope that sticks. And this got me thinking...

To paraphrase William James, and use his arguments in The Will To Believe for my own purposes:
It is better to try, and possibly get something wrong than never to try at all. Failing to try may mean you don't actually get it 'wrong' but you also can't possibly get it 'right'. Failing to try means sacrificing the chance to get it right. You may avoid error but should that be more important than knowing the truth?? If we try something new, something we may not know if we can do, we may fail. And that's a risk. But if we don't take that risk, we will never possibly get it right - learn more - know more about ourselves, our limits, and our possibilities.
"Our errors are surely not such awful things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf...Indeed we may wait if we will, but we do so at our own peril..." ~ William James
With some things this matters, a lot: When matters are not guaranteed. When things may not be certain. When we aren't sure if we really can do something. If these things matter to you, to your life, if these things matter as part of your passional nature, as James puts it, then finding truth trumps avoiding error.

Do something you're not sure you can do, if it matters to your life.

Ha. I didn't even mention running in this one!!!  ;)


  1. One of your most beautiful posts ever. James's "The Will to Believe" is my favorite of all philosophy essays - love its application to your little first-grade speller. Yes, let's err on the side of hope. Let's try.

    1. Thank you! Of course I am playing a little fast and loose with James's criteria here - since spelling certainly is not one of those things that remain (or have remained) unanswered, and may forever remain unanswered. But I have used this essay, many time, to explain to students why NOT answering an exam question makes no sense at all.


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