GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Learning Failure

In Under the Rain With No Umbrella on 2012/09/24 at 01:37

Itir Toksöz, writing from Istanbul, Turkey

I have a confession to make: Until recently, I have not known how to ride a bike. Some 6 years ago when a Belgian friend of mine found out that I did not know to ride a bike, he asked me the following question in shock: “OK, so you did not ride a bike, but then what did you do as a child?”

Excellent question indeed! Until that moment I probably had never asked myself how I spent my childhood. Seriously, what did I do as a child? Surely I did a lot of what the average kids my age living in my area did: I played with dolls, played hide and seek, watched TV, went swimming, attended a course to play the flute and played in the school marching band, sang in school choir, then I collected stamps, pencils and paper napkins, I raised silkworms, I flew kites. Surprisingly I never dreamt about becoming what the average kid would want to become like a doctor or a teacher. I dreamt that I would become an astronaut or a veterinarian. Although I never dreamt of becoming a professor or a teacher, unlike many other kids I read a lot of books and even started writing my stories using the kind of imagination which wanted to launch me to the outer space or put me to live in a circus with animals.

So yes, I did not have a bike, but I had my books for reading and my notebooks and pens for writing. And that must have been one of the factors to have led me to academic life.

As a student, I was never a nerd. I used to enjoy my time doing things other than studying and people would actually be surprised at how well I managed to do many activities (like theater, music etc.) and still be very successful at school. I remember having had a distinct answer: “I try to do what I can do best and I do not try to get involved in areas where I am not sure I can succeed.” At that time, I thought that was a very clever answer.

However upon hearing my friend’s question , I realized it probably was not. As I grew older I realized how limiting this seemingly realistic “only do the things that you really can” approach really is. I probably was not taught how people could excel later in something that they did not do well to begin with if they tried hard, practiced often and persevered. Like biking…

The first time I rode a bike was 6 years ago. During that summer when I was asked the above question, I decided to learn how to bike and I somewhat did. I could ride on a road which did not have any curves and which did not have any moving objects such as people or vehicles other than my bike. This summer, since I was spending a week in the Netherlands with my Dutch boyfriend, it seemed like a good opportunity to improve my biking. We rented a bike and I had the embarrassment of my life while trying to learn how to bike as an adult in the middle of all the Dutch people who most probably learned cycling in their mummy’s tummy. Having been someone who raised herself with the “only do the things that you really can” approach, it has been very rare that I ever thought of myself as a failure, but this definitely was one of these times.

Proudly, I can say that at the end of a two day crash-course, I am now able to ride in the presence of other bikers and people and I can take curves on the road. I need some improvement in getting off the bike and while driving in traffic. Thanks to this experience, I have come to see that experiencing failure is also a part of success. That could not have been something that academic life could have taught me, since I was already good at academic things. But learning is not confined to academic life and I am glad that I now know that I can do not only the things that I am already good at but also things that I start out by failing.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

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