Why are we so afraid of failure? In my years of teaching and being a director at Rockmont, I have seen the fear of failing at something cripple young men. I have watched young men allow opportunities to pass them by because if they tried, they might fail, and failure was too unknown.
Even as adults, we shy away from anything that might cause us to seem like we don’t have it all together. We only try things we “know” we at least have a chance at success.
But think of all the things we miss. The things we might enjoy, the lessons we could learn, the experiences we could have had if we weren’t afraid to fail. What if failure was recognized for being as common as it really is? What if failure wasn’t something we felt we had to hide? What if we felt so secure in our own self-image and in our community that were weren’t afraid to totally, utterly, and unabashedly fail at something? I think that would change who we are.
In Mountain Camp, one of the things that we try to teach our young men is they should always be trying something new. After spending a few days getting comfortable here at camp in our community, we challenge them to step outside of their comfort zone.
One of our traditions for the past 14 summers has been Challenge Bracelets. The idea is simple, yet hopefully it goes much deeper. Each camper talks to their counselor and decides on a physically safe challenge for them in their 2, 3, or 4 weeks at Rockmont. The only stipulation on the challenge is there has to be a large chance of failure. Campers pick all sorts of challenges from diving to reach the bottom of the famed Ranger Hole on the Sycamore campout to preparing and leading a devotion for their cabin. Some choose purely physical tasks while others challenge themselves socially, emotionally, or spiritually. When the boys complete their challenge, they are celebrated by being given a bracelet to wear. I try to be clear to the boys that this bracelet is not a trophy but it is to serve as a reminder. It reminds them that they can do hard things, and it reminds them to accept challenges. My favorite challenges are the ones at which a camper has tried over and over again and failed before they are successful. During Mountain Camp Council, I had the blessing of hearing one of these stories.
In Mountain Camp Council, we discuss the 4 torches of the Rockmont motto: Strength and Gentleness, Force and Refinement, Mastery of Body, and Servitude to God. Each torch is explained by a different counselor, then the counselor asks a particular young man to stand up in front of Council. The counselor speaks directly to the camper calling out how he has shown the characteristics of that particular torch back in camp. This is by far one of my favorite parts of camp.
At Council, the counselor of our youngest group of Poplars was explaining Force and Refinement. After his explanation of what the torch means to him, he called up a young man named Jackson. You see Jackson had not been afraid of failure. Jackson’s goal, his challenge, was to climb the rock wall. It was something he had wanted to do for some time. In fact, for the last 3 years, it had been Jackson’s goal. Ever year, he had fallen short. He failed. But he was not defeated, nor did he take his failure as something to be ashamed of. Every year he made it his goal again to climb the wall. This was his year. He set his goal again to climb to the top of the wall knowing full well that failure was indeed an option. But he didn’t let the fear of failure stop him. And this time, nothing stopped him. He made it to the top of the wall. Can you imagine the feeling? By this point its not just about accomplishing a goal, but accomplishing a goal that had been out of reach for so long.
As Mountain Camp Council congratulated this young man for making it to the top of the wall, I was happy for a different reason. I was happy because he failed so many times before. I was happy that this young man had learned that failure is not something to avoid. He learned that if you fail, you get back up and try again. For 3 years he learned this. He learned that it’s better to fail time and time again then to never try at all. This young man gives me hope. He gives me hope for myself and for all of our young men at camp. My hope is that we all embrace whatever is in front of us with the same passion, the same courage. Whether it be failure or success, we need to know that we can do hard things.
Mountain Camp Director