Failing… It’s an Important Step.

Did you know that the lodgepole pine will only reproduce after a fire or lightning strike? Their pinecones have a wax protective sealant.  The heat of the fire or lightening melts that wax and the seeds come out to scatter.  Hopefully by this process will lodgepole pine trees grow and replenish. Birth by fire…

I can’t say how many times I failed to get a fire lit as a scout. Sure, the adult leaders instructed me on the proper mechanics and safety of fire building. But now comes the application part: how would I apply what was taught by my scout leaders to make something new? I had to learn why it works in my OWN way despite watching their demonstrations. I had to learn the hard way why using wet wood doesn’t work well or the fact that tinder must be the thickness of the lead inside a pencil (and not the entire pencil) to light a fire correctly. I learned that a book of matches not kept in a weather proof container won’t start a fire very well when it’s been foggy out all night…

…Sage wisdom which can only be proven by “fire”, so to speak (well, and literally, too).

Sometimes certain wisdom only comes from hard-won lessons. The harder the lesson the longer the scout will remember it and apply it well when needed.

Applied knowledge = Wisdom  

Wisdom is only learned from applied knowledge. Applied knowledge is born from both success and failure. It’s great when success comes early. But it builds confidence only so much. Confidence must be tested and tempered.

Guess how it’s tested?

Yep…“Trial by fire” through failing.

As adult leaders we have to make sure to gauge the maturity of the scout in relation to the task for safety as well as potential for success. We don’t want to set them up to fail.

On the other hand, adult leaders who constantly jump in and do the difficult things for scouts all the time are actually robbing scouts of important life skills and that helps nobody. So, sometimes we need to let them fail.

So, now you see a scout failing. There is no fire. Or, the scout couldn’t find all the points on the map. Should the scout just quit? Heck no. Should the scout simply be told to start again on the fire or go back into the woods immediately? Heck no. This is the most critical time and transition to a success story. Doing something over and over again expecting the same results is the very definition of insanity. As adult leaders this is when we recheck what knowledge has been transferred over to the scout. We must help adjust what was missed or wrong and then we then let them attempt it again.

Obviously, the best opportunities to teach how to overcome failure is modeling that for your scouts. As a scoutmaster I teach about some of my past mistakes to show the scouts that I learned from them and become better for it. Besides my hard-earned lesson in fire-starting, I also failed at a compass course when I was trying for 1st Class Rank. But this lesson has allowed me to better instruct those within my troop. I own it.

It’s very important to own your failures as a leader.  When they see you do this and move through it, they know it’s okay to do that as well. It assures them to avoid making that particular mistake again.

I remember trying to get in a crash course on a compass/map lesson for six boys working toward their 1st Class requirement sign-off. It was summer camp, and I had two hours in one day and then two hours the next to run them through their mile course. It sucked. They were tired and upset that they weren’t getting it. And I was tired and upset they weren’t getting it. I ended up stopping it after a bit, saying that it wasn’t working and it’s not their fault it wasn’t working. It was MY fault for trying to cram it all in. I needed more time to teach the skill and more time for them to practice.

We ended up going over compass work for the next couple weekly meetings. All of the boys completed their compass course and passed it with flying colors… ON THEIR OWN.

Guess what?

Out of those six scouts I have two that are so confident that they can teach others now. It’s a lot better when the scout teaches the skills properly to other scouts…. for everyone involved. 🙂

When that scout comes out on the other side of a failure with more wisdom on how to be better next time, you have given that scout an incredible life skill. Because he or she has earned it through hardship, that skill has greater meaning for the scout.  Now he or she can better pass on that knowledge to others.  His or her confidence will have grown not just with that immediate task but with more difficult tasks that lay ahead in life.

Remember we are there to have fun, enjoy the journey and take advantage of all those moments that you come your way… and then talk about them around the campfire.

Good luck out there, scouters!

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The author, Tony Zizak, is a long time scouter, Eagle Scout, and the scoutmaster of Troop 119 Ellettsville, IN. He has been to scout camps across the country and was a certified Program Director, Aquatics Director and a Scoutcraft Director. As a youth Tony received his Vigil Honor and served as a Lodge Chief for Tseyedin Lodge #65. Reach out to him for any questions you may have on this article.