An Option

Calvin looked at the Rey-O figure and then looked back at me. His lower lip quivered. His big brown eyes sank to the page, and then slowly shifted up once more. Tears started to well.


“It OK, Calvin,” I said softly. “Remember how I said I don’t expect it to be perfect?”


Calvin made no move to pick up the colored pencil. A tear broke free and rolled gently down his cheek.


“Let’s just give it a try and see how it goes,” I encouraged.


Calvin remained still, slumped in a posture of preemptive defeat. I tried a few more attempts to reassure and inspire him, inching closer with each passing second to giving up and trying something else.


Just as I was on the cusp of moving on, Calvin whispered, “What if I try, but I can’t do it?”


I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “Oh!” I said.


“I think that would be wonderful.

Calvin’s eyes popped up. His brow furrowed into a question mark. He asked, “What do you mean?”


I reminded him of what we’d talked about at the beginning. “Remember how I said my goal is to learn all about you? What’s hard for you, and what you’re great at? What you’ve already learned, and what you still have left to learn?”


Calvin nodded, so I continued. “Remember how I said that finding out what’s really hard for you will help us make school a better fit for how you learn?” Another slow nod.


“Well, if you could do a perfect job on everything I asked you to do, I wouldn’t learn very much about you, would I? If you try this and it’s really hard for you, that would tell me a lot! It will give me great ideas for things you can learn in school, or from your mom and dad, or from you therapist Miss Christy. I’ll have lots of ideas for how to make other hard things easier for you.”


Calvin seemed unconvinced. “Even if I fail?”


I smiled. “Especially if you fail.”


His mouth pursed into a knot and he squinted at me. “So you mean…” he paused, trying to think of the right words. “You mean…

“Failure is an option?”

Oh, my.


I nodded, not quite trusting myself with words. Calvin picked up his pencil.


All the failure photos were too sad, so here's a picture of hot air balloons.

As it turns out, Calvin’s dad often gave his son a piece of advice he’d received from his own father. That advice was ‘failure is not an option.’ Calvin had taken this saying quite literally, and he viewed mistakes with something akin to terror. Uncovering Calvin’s belief that failing at something was truly not okay led to a powerful family feedback session.


Perhaps most powerful for me, if I’m honest.


Calvin’s words from that day have stayed with me over the years. They flutter inside my head like tiny, hopeful birds, especially on days when I have to be brave. I hear the wingbeat like the opening line of a sonnet. Like a mantra.


“Failure is an option. Failure is an option. Failure is an option.”

When I forget that failure is one of my options, I stay small and fixed. I don’t try new things. I’m scared by the million things I don’t know. I miss out on feedback from clients, peers, mentors, and stakeholders… feedback that could mold me into a better clinician.


I’m stuck doing things the way they’ve always been done, even if that means killing myself to write 25+ page reports that families can’t read. I can’t get my fingers to cooperate to write a blog post, or a post to the listserv, or a proposal for a grand rounds session at a conference. I’m held fast by the fear of a rejection, a correction, or – perhaps the most awful response of all? – silence.


Worse, I tiptoe around the thorny issues in feedbacks with families, afraid to engage genuinely with them about the hard things.




When I’m willing to fail, I defuse the paralyzing power of fear. When I’m willing to fail, I can be brave. I can make myself do hard things.


But when I truly accept that not only might I fail, but that failing some of the time is good and necessary and the very best teacher, everything expands. I swim in a sea of chances to learn. I don’t have to be brave any more, because there’s nothing to be scared of. I’m just trying something, and seeing what happens. Success is an option, silence is an option, and failure is an option.


And failure is the option that will tell me the most.


Lately the universe has been hinting to me that this is a message others need to hear. Many clinicians have been telling me in their own specific ways that they believe their own failure is not really an option. Other clinicians have been telling me that failure is not an okay option for their clients, and getting mired in blame or self-doubt when failure insists on happening.


So, I want to talk about failure as an option.


Actually what I want to do is shout "Failure is an Option" from the rooftops, so picture me shouting from up here.

I want to talk about how failure helps us learn. How it’s part of the process of deliberate practice (one of the few therapist-specific behaviors that research has shown differentially affects client outcomes). How it helps us get better at what we do.


Ideally, I'd like to do talk about this in ways that are surprising, and that maybe you haven't thought of yet. And I'd like to do it without resorting to cliches, like "forget the failure, remember the lesson", but I make no promises.


So, at random times, I’m going to talk about failure as an option. An option in our therapy with our clients. In our assessments. In tinkering with our reports. In making recommendations. In feeling like you know what you’re doing. In speaking up and participating in broader conversations in our field.


I say “random times” because these posts will happen whenever inspiration strikes. When I first started this blog, I thought all my posts would be serious and scientific, about things like empirically-based assessment of psychosis. Then I thought I would write mostly about report-writing. Then I thought I'd write about assessment more generally, following a linear path through a series of topics, like empathy and cognitive biases and secret questions.


It turns out that I’ve utterly failed at sticking to specific themes and topics. I’ve also utterly failed at following any kind of set schedule for when I post.


Luckily, failure is an option.


Failure has taught me I most like writing posts when my mind gets carried away by an idea.

Note: 4th grade level. About 1000 words. 16 of 94 sentences are hard or very hard to read.

©2018 by Stephanie Nelson, Ph.D.