As I write this, I’m jam-packed in between all 6 of my siblings, way too many pillows, never enough snacks, and stacks of suit bags in our family’s van as we head to NITOC. The national tournament for Stoa begins Monday, NCFCA kicks off in 18 days, and NSDA kicks off in 28.

If you’re like me, you’re nervous. Nervous that the hundreds of hours that you’ve dedicated this year will culminate in a 3-3 record and a failure to break. Nervous that the speech you’ve spent countless late nights honing to near-perfection won’t resonate and you’ll leave it in quarterfinals. Nervous that your effort will amount to nothing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sure, I have goals that I want to achieve. And yes, if I don’t meet those goals, I’ll of course be pretty ticked. But the worth of my work is not measured in whether I’m in quarters or semis at one big high school debate tournament.

Problem: We don’t know how to fail

I’ve known people in the top ten nationally who made it to NITOC and didn’t even break. I’ve known people who’ve only ever broke twice make it to NITOC and advance deep into outrounds. Nationals is ONE tournament but we treat it as though it’s the test to determine our worth as speakers and debaters.

This mindset wrecks so many good competitors as they overthink their preparation and are devastated if they don’t perform as well as they expected at the national tournament.

Solution 1: Own failure

I want to make it very clear what I’m not saying. I don’t think that we should give everything we have in the weeks before Nationals, set goals, and if we fail to meet those goals simply shrug it off and just say, “Meh. It’s just nationals.”

We can’t treat our failures like they’re nothing.

Own them. If we’ve failed, chances are that we could’ve worked harder, we could’ve gotten more feedback, we could’ve worked smarter, or we could’ve practiced more. If we ignore the ramifications of failing to achieve our goals, we’re spitting on all of our previous work and saying that we didn’t really care about the results at Nationals. If you set achievable goals and missed the mark, grieve.  You could’ve done better and you didn’t.

It’s hard to own failure. However, if you fail to own your failure, you’ll never strive to succeed. Does success matter to you? If so, act like it. Rejoice in your success and grieve in your failings.

Solution 2: Keep failure in perspective

Now, what I’m saying here can very easily be construed to mean something I never meant. Let me clarify. I don’t want your failure to destroy you.

You should never be so focused on achieving your goals that you that you shut down for days if you don’t. I know people who didn’t achieve their goals and shut down for days afterwards. They didn’t watch their clubmates, they didn’t help their friends, I heard sentences like, “Everything I’ve worked for this year. All for nothing.”

Let’s take a step back here for a second.

Yes, you’ve poured dozens of hours into this activity. Yes, you’ve devoted your heart and soul. But 10 years from now? Chances are, no one besides you will remember what place you got at nationals, or regionals, or some big qualifying tournament.

Your results won’t be relevant.

Your results don’t carry a legacy. But you can. 10 years from now? Your results may be forgotten, but your friendships can still be there. Your NITOC placement may be delegated to the dustbins of forensic history, but the skills you’ve learned from this activity will have blossomed and grown into an invaluable asset. Your trophies will be in a box in your garage, but your character, your strength, work ethic, perseverance, and humility will still be the defining aspects of your life.

Remember, we don’t debate to win. We debate to grow.

Awards are meaningful only as a representation of growth and achievement. If we start treating THEM as our goal rather than as a mere reminder of what truly matters, then this ancient skill of Rhetoric has become nothing more than a vessel for us to inflate our egos.

So, own your failure. Grieve. But keep it in perspective. There are 120 debaters at Nats. Only one wins. Don’t destroy yourself when you inevitably place lower than you wanted. Nationals can be a roll of the dice sometimes. Don’t let it determine your worth.

Fail well.

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