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Learning from Failure and Overcoming Adversity

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By Theodore Telepak
Adjunct Faculty, College of Education

“What have you learned from failure?”

This was the last question that ESPN reporter, Tom Rinaldi, asked of Serena Williams, after she had just won the Ladies Singles Wimbledon Championship.

What did I expect Serena to say? Sixty-nine singles titles. Thirty-six total Grand Slam titles. Twenty-two doubles titles. Six Australian Open titles. Six U.S. Open titles. Three French Open titles. Two mixed doubles titles. Four gold medals. And six Wimbledon titles. 

Many consider Serena Williams to be the greatest female tennis player who has ever lived.  Surely, Serena would tell Tom of her desire for dominance, her compulsion to conquer, her pursuit of perfection and her want to win.

But she did not. She responded, “What have I learned from failure? I learned how to fail.”

When I heard her answer, it was as though I had just found the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket.

No wonder why Serena Williams is so successful. Serena does not have a fear of failure. She knows how to fail.

This is perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned.

“If you had to write down your greatest flaw or fault on a Post-it note, what would it be?”

This is the first question I ask my students at the start of a new semester. Just imagine what you would write. Why would we want to write anything on that note? We would not.

And, why would we want to post that note anywhere to be seen, let alone to be worn as a bodily billboard in public? We would not.

And yet, that is what a person with a disability does. I teach special education here at GCU, and I sometimes feel like I am the professor professing “the spirituality of imperfection.” There is something exceptional about what I teach.

What is it like to be the person with the disability? What is it like:

  • To be a young woman with a paralyzed hand who only wants to paint her fingernails on both hands just to make herself feel beautiful again?
  • To be a newly married man with a traumatic brain injury who easily forgives the man who shot him in the head?
  • To be his bride who stills feel resentment towards the gunman, and even anger towards her husband for not being angry with the man who almost took his life?
  • To be a young adult with an emotional and behavioral disorder who wonders what it feels like to cry when you are overwhelmed with joy and not sadness
  • To be a parent of the teenager who became blind?

What does it mean to finally come to understand that time does not heal all wounds? Love does. That teenager who became blind eventually became my teaching assistant. And, since he cannot look out and has to look in, his perspective has given my students and me a depth perception that we would never have otherwise.

So, why is he blind?

Jesus said, “It’s so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” (Luke 9:3)

Is the person with the disability really that different than us? No.

We just need to be as “spiritually ambidextrous” as they are, accepting that God is present in both prosperity and adversity.

G.K. Chesterton writes in “Heretics” that it is better to be ‘Jack’ than to be the giant: “The strong cannot be brave. Only the weak can be brave; and yet again, in practice, only those who can be brave can be trusted, in time of doubt, to be strong. The only way in which a giant could really keep himself in training against the inevitable Jack would be by continually fighting other giants ten times as big as himself. That is by ceasing to be a giant and becoming a Jack.”

Learn how to fail. Profess the spirituality of imperfection. Be spiritually ambidextrous.

Why do I teach?

On the last day of class, a student of mine once told me, “Before I took this class, I thought I knew everything, but I did not know jack. But, now I do.”

Know Jack. Cease to be a giant and become a Jack.

Serena may seem to be a giant on the tennis court, but she is not. She is also a Jack.

More about Ted:

Telepak Head ShotTed is a special education adjunct professor at Grand Canyon University and the Maricopa Community Colleges. He has directed the vocational rehabilitation services for ResCare Rehab without Walls in Phoenix since 1992, and has assisted more than 2,500 persons with traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries in their return to school or work. Ted also developed a transitional program for youth with neurological disorders for The Day School of Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh, PA; served as an ADHD educational research coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh; worked as a special education coordinator for High Point Learning Center and Mercywood Psychiatric Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI; and taught anatomy/physiology laboratory classes at Eastern Michigan University. Ted was the recipient of the Exceptional Educator of the Year Award by the Tempe Mayor’s Disability Council in 2013, and the Exemplary Leadership and Service Award by the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society in 2009.