Failure and Flexibility in Intentional Young Adulthood

A friend recently sent me a book recommendation with the comment that she thought of me when she read it because she knew I had “a passion for intentional adulthood.”  I don’t think I’ve ever used that exact term before, but it is a good description.  Growing up doesn’t just happen.  Careers, education, and success don’t accidentally appear in someone’s life – at some point people need to act, choose, and pursue the kind of lives they want.  Those words all imply intentionality.  Yes, opportunities come unexpectedly, and new interests surprise us sometimes, but only if we’re out living life instead of sitting back waiting for it to happen.

Passive education doesn’t even look realistic. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

For students, this means engaging in active learning and taking personal responsibility in their education and maturation.  For adults, this means pursuing a goal with purpose.  We can and should be intentional in our careers, communities, and families.  Make the decision to achieve something, and then take the steps necessary to make it happen.

However, the problem with intentional living is that we can’t do it in a vacuum.  We live among other people, and what they do impacts our lives, too.  What happens when life isn’t all smooth sailing?  When the people who are supposed to help us move forward let us down instead?  What happens when others fail us, or when we fail ourselves?  Even with the best motivation and effort, you will get knocked down sometimes.  So how do you deal with it?

Last week, I subbed for a teacher with a wide range of class ages and abilities throughout her day.  In one of her early classes, the lesson plan she left had students watch a series of YouTube videos and then fill out a worksheet packet based on the content they’d watched.  One young man in the class expressed disdain for the videos and clearly made no effort to absorb the actual material.  When it came time to complete the worksheets, he didn’t even try.  He filled in nonsense answers and wrote on the side of the page “You didn’t teach us anything.”  That’s how he turned it in.  When I tried to talk to him about it, I explained that he still had the responsibility to try, even if he got the answers wrong.  He needed to put in the effort to learn, and he could talk to the teacher later if he was still confused.  Teachers are there to help, guide, and present information, but it is the student’s responsibility to put in the effort of learning.  He didn’t get it.  “So what’s the point of school if teachers aren’t going to teach?!” he fumed at me before storming away.

Let’s be honest for a minute.  Not all teachers are good teachers.  I wish they were, but that simply isn’t the case.  However, not even the best teachers can open up a passive student’s brain and pour the information inside.  Teachers can’t download content into their minds.  Students need to listen, read, engage, etc. in order to actually take in the information.  And sometimes, a teacher’s job isn’t to simply hand them the knowledge – sometimes our job is to point students in the right direction to help them discover new information and skills on their own.  Even with the best teachers, learning is an intentional action on the student’s part, not a passive state of being.

So when you do find yourself with a teacher who lets you down, you can still actively engage in the content and put in the effort of learning.  You can still do your part, even when the teacher isn’t living up to their end of the deal.  In fact, that’s when you should be trying harder!  A poor teacher doesn’t negate personal responsibility.  While I really can’t speak to the abilities of the teacher I subbed for (since I’ve never met her), that young man chose not to pay attention to the videos or look up the information in the text-book, so whether the teacher was good or not is irrelevant at this point.  He didn’t hold up his end of the responsibility.  He took a passive role in his education.  In doing so, in my book he lost the right to blame the teacher for his lack of learning.

But what about when you do put in the effort?  When you do intentionally strive for success through taking personal responsibility and working hard, and you still don’t get the results you want?  That same day in a different class period, a young lady came in to class in tears because she’d failed an AP Biology exam.  She had studied for hours and still failed.

Unfortunately, that will happen.  Sometimes it’s a test.  Sometimes it’s a part in a play or a spot on a team, a college application or a job you want, opportunities that don’t go your way, despite your best efforts.  It sucks.  It hurts.  It’s frustrating and discouraging.  But it’s not an excuse to give up and become a victim of your own life.  Intentional living means picking yourself back up after a failure and refusing to passively accept defeat.  Maybe that means putting in more effort and trying again.  Maybe it means changing directions and pursuing a slightly different path.  Whatever the case, personal effort and intentionality can’t end.

So we need to be flexible in our dreams and efforts.  We’re allowed to feel frustrated and disappointed.  We’re allowed to grieve the loss of an ideal goal or dream.  But we have to be careful that our feelings don’t turn into wallowing.  We can’t fall into the trap of the victim mentality.  I say “we” because I’ve experienced my own setbacks and heartbreaks.  I know what it means to swallow my pride, pick up the pieces, and start putting in the effort all over again.

That girl upset over her AP Bio grade spent most of class venting her frustrations to her friends, but before the period even ended, she started rethinking her options for graduating with the diploma she wanted.  Compared to the boy I’d just seen give up so quickly on a simple worksheet and blame others for his failure, her tenacity was impressive.  She had a legitimate reason to be mad, but she also knew she had to move forward.  The boy blamed everyone but himself for his lack of knowledge while she accepted the personal responsibility for moving on from a failure.  Which one do you think will go further in life?

Learn this lesson now, because although I’ve been using academics as my example, these situations don’t go away after high school or college.  People will let you down.  You will fail sometimes, and others will fail you.  Just don’t let yourself become a victim after failure.

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8 thoughts on “Failure and Flexibility in Intentional Young Adulthood

  1. Thanks for this! I think tenacity and perseverance promote long term learning. Although I´m cognitivist, motivational factors matter (even more than cognitive factors, depending of the goal). It´s very important to be flexible in our dreams and efforts (It helped with my PhD goal and work) 🙂 Great Blog!

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  2. I have found that I had to watch what I said. It could be misunderstood or slanted. And then there were times I put my foot in my mouth. Since we use language to communicate we sometimes forget the receiver might be thinking along different lines. I heard a joke “what does the pig say when he fell down the stairs?” Answer “My achy breaking bacon.” Non offensive. But to a Muslim, to a seventh day, to a witness? It could be taken in a bad way. Farfetched. Sure. But I was in the principals office on more than one occasion for silly things like that.

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  3. I am a high school student currently, so a lot of your posts have felt very relevant to me. Thank you! I see all of this happening, every single day. I think part of being a teenager is pushing the boundaries of authority, and we all live in a very philosophical realm- does it really matter, in the scheme of life, if I do this assignment? To a lot of students, the answer is no. I think that it is most important that teachers are able to connect their material to the outside world and explain its relevance. If the subject isn’t particularly relevant, then the teacher must explain how the skills from the class are usable in life. If nothing else, the teacher must explain how doing well in the class will help the student get into college and succeed in life, etc. While I do think people should take responsibility for their lives, I also know most teenagers won’t do this on their own if they aren’t doing their work in the first place. External motivation, a “wake up call”, if you will, from a teacher can give an important push. I think at my age, people need to be inspired by their teachers to find a direction in life. I, and my peers, are so malleable and impressionable. A great teacher is the person who inspires a student to take responsibility for their life, and live intentionally. Do you feel that this is, in any way, a teachers duty to make their kids care? Or is it all the student’s responsibility?

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    • I think there’s independent responsibility on both sides. Teachers should do what they can to make their content relevant and interesting, because students will naturally work harder if they see the point. However, what interests one student will often bore another, so it’s nearly impossible to actively engage all students all the time, so students still need to be responsible regardless of their personal interest. If a teacher can make it more interesting for you, great! But don’t use their failure to do so as an excuse to not do the work.

      Plus, it’s not a good lesson for students to think “well, this isn’t relevant to me, so I’m just not going to do it.” I can think of plenty of things we teachers have to do every day that isn’t interesting or (dare I say it) relevant to the act of teaching. Those tasks stress us out, eat up our time, and often frustrate us with their apparent uselessness, but we still have to do them. In any profession, you will be asked to complete tasks that appear irrelevant and not worth it, but you still have to do them to keep your job. Like it or not, the habits you form now will carry over into adulthood. So even if the homework itself doesn’t apply to the rest of your life, the way you handle it will.

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      • Yes, that makes complete sense. Thank you for clarifying. I love your blog and its relevance to teenagers; I think it’s absolutely wonderful to have an adult opinion on the teenage condition, because we are often an overlooked group, or thought to be inexplicable. Thank you for your blog, and for inspiring me to pursue my own teen blog with your other posts!

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