Sometimes trying isn’t good enough

Having lost power earlier this week due to Hurricane Sandy, I decided to build a fire to help keep the family warm.  Lacking the luxuries of electricity, I needed to hearken back to my Boy Scout days and go into survival mode.  So I got the wood, newspapers, wood chips, twigs, etc. all set to get a fire going.

Unfortunately, the kindling and some of the wood was damp and so it was particularly difficult to get anything more than the newspapers to catch flame.  About ten minutes in, my eldest daughter pats me on the back and said, “it’s OK Dad, you tried your best, and that’s what counts”.  I had never been sickened so much by the education system and society as I was at that moment.

Children have been inundated with this self-esteem nonsense to the point where effort and results are identically valuable.  Apparently, it’s perfectly acceptable to fail, so long as you try.  With some things this is the case.  But not every scenario can results be replaced with effort and a pat on the back.

“Honey, are you still cold?”, I asked.

“Yeah Dad, it’s freezing.” she replied.

“Then it doesn’t matter how much I try, if I don’t succeed, we’ll all still be cold.  Sometimes trying isn’t good enough.  If I don’t succeed at building this fire, you all won’t be warm, and I have failed to keep you safe.  Sorry, trying isn’t good enough here, I need to get this fire going.”

She understood, for the time being. I don’t know if the overall lesson I was trying to teach her was absorbed right there, and I’ll work on it another time.  But if this particular incident isn’t evidence of the dangers that the self-esteem movement has had and will have on the drive for success, I don’t know what is.  Feeling good about yourself for failing is damaging to a true sense of self worth. Granted, this wasn’t a life or death situation, but what if it were and she were alone?  Would she give up after only ten minutes and shrug, “at least I tried”?  I hope not.

I did eventually get the fire going and I reiterated to her, “honey, sometimes you have to try until you get it done.”  She smiled, and so did I.


  1. (applause) the fire was a terrific metaphor for life and you engaged in some excellent parenting!

  2. TerranceH says:


    I agree in part. Oftentimes, people refuse to try because they’re afraid they won’t succeed. If you try and fail, yes, you fail. But at least you tried.

    Failure is inevitable. Nobody succeeds at everything. But with failure comes opportunity to learn from our mistakes. First you must try, then work hard to succeed, then learn from your success as well as your failure.

    I think you made a good point, but you could have developed it more to include that trying is indeed part of the battle, as is learning from success and failure.

    “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” ~ Woody Allen

    “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

    “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might has well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” ~ J. K. Rowling

    You might be interested to know that J.K. Rowling was actually collecting welfare when Harry Potter was accepted for publication, after 12 publication houses rejected it. She kept trying. Like you said to your daughter, perseverance.

    So it’s all connected. You have to try, be proud of that. But you have to try harder to succeed when you fail, and learn from your failures.

  3. I don’t think John’s point was that “trying” has no value, but that perseverance has more. Failure is not “OK” when success means survival, for instance. The mindset that says “That’s OK. You tried and that’s all that counts.” is meaningless when failure to succeed results in dire consequences. But even those consequences “less dire” than death do not mitigate the fact that “OK to fail” is a poor attitude if not understood. “OK to fail” really is a matter of how one deals with failure, not that one can put forth any level of effort insufficient to succeed and feel good about it. Said another way, if one puts 100% into some task, and despite that best effort fails to succeed, one should not allow such things to break one’s spirit. In this case, “OK to fail” simply means that there is no sin or reason to feel guilty and beat up one’s self over the failure. This distinction, in fact, is summed up nicely in the Emerson quote above.

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