Losing the Fear of Failure

By: Patricia Monteith

UntitledSelf-esteem issues are typically at the top of the list of scars that can stay with us for the rest of our lives.  Many teenage girls are very sensitive about how they are viewed by others and tend to constantly feel misunderstood.  So, when the unknowns and frustrations of creating a science or engineering project are the main focus of a mentoring experience, the mentor must remember their own youth and muster up every ounce of emotion, empathy and appropriate words of support — or confront dire reactions.

Almost by definition, there is an inherent uncertainty of success with science fair projects; most do not work right the first time and have unpredictable outcomes. So I try to prepare my mentees early on with a coping mechanism when the inevitable happens by letting them know that with science or engineering projects “it’s okay to fail.” I tell them the story of how Thomas Edison, upon inventing the light bulb said, “I have not failed 700 times; I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work.  When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

When the girls hit a roadblock and are all-too-quick to give up on their project, I remind them that a different approach might actually improve the end results.  I have a collection of 2 or 3 examples of other students’ projects that were greatly improved when the student developed another approach. I ask the student a series of “what if” questions to lead them in another direction which might result in a better solution, and encourage them to try several different methods to see which might work best.  There is nothing more satisfying than watching someone lose their fear of failure and begin to enjoy learning science research from trial and error.

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