The Ballerina’s Dilemma

Today I am bringing you an updated version of a Daily Deac from a few years ago. This has to do with fear of failure.

Wake Forest is filled with high achieving students who have a long track record of success. Research on the current generation of college students finds that they tend to be people who want to please their parents, their teachers, their friends. Add to this the fact that we live in an age of social media where people are carefully curating their image (how many selfies do you have to take before you get the one where everything looks perfect?) – and you can end up with people who are risk averse, lest they be seen as anything less than successful or perfect.

I had a conversation a few years ago with a Wake Forest-related friend who is a former professional ballerina. She worked in prestigious companies. She was a big deal. She retired from dancing and switched to teaching ballet, and was lamenting that one of her biggest struggles is to get her dance students to attempt big things like complicated jumps. They were afraid they would fall and look stupid.

My ballerina friend wryly said that she fell flat on her face – on stage, tutu and all – more times than she cared to remember. But her point was that you don’t get to be on stage as a principal dancer if you aren’t willing to put your best foot forward (literally) and try the hard stuff.

Undeniably, her success was partially due to natural talent, but a lot of it had to do with her grit. She was willing – both as a student and as a professional dancer – to try the jumps and the complicated steps. Her fear of falling or making a misstep was not enough to keep her from making the attempt.

Which is something she said she isn’t seeing in some of her students.  They don’t want to try, lest they fail. And until and unless these young dancers try, they will never reach this ballerina’s level.

How can we help our students figure out that it is worth it to take the ballerina’s leap?  Even if they fall, they will learn something. Is it better to keep your tutu pristine and unwrinkled?  Or is it better to try that jump, even if you stumble?


— by Betsy Chapman ’92, MA ’94

Categories: the daily deac

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