The stage is set. You’ve been wanting to debate in finals for two years, and now you finally get your chance. As you walk up the steps to take your place, you can’t help feeling like a champion already. Even though you haven’t won yet, you can still see the first place medal and you know that you’re going to be the one that gets it.
You set up quickly, fingers shaking as you drink a little bit too much water a little too early on. After shaking your judges hands, you shake your opponents and get ready to win a tournament.
Okay. This is it.
The 1AC goes by quickly, and you just as quickly realized that you’re not quite as prepared as you had thought you were. Prep time starts to tick away as you frantically search for answers in your brief, but it’s no use: their case has changed since the last time you hit it. After two minutes, you know you had better get up there. You take a deep breathe, and let it out with a “no further prep time”.
This is it. This is what you’ve been waiting for. And now you’re going to blow it.
Failure is an inevitable part of debate. Though we will all eventually give a terrible speech, most of us try to stave off the inevitable as long as we can. We try and stay out of situations that will cause us to look bad, or feel bad because we think that failure is the opposite of success. But the thing is, it’s not.
In fact, failure is the best path to success.
By putting ourselves in situations that cause us to fail the most, we end up creating the greatest opportunities for growth.
What is Success?
Before I try to convince you that setting yourself up to fail is the best way to succeed, I obviously first need to explain what success in debate is. So I ask you: why do you debate? The motivation behind your argumentation will determine what success looks like for you. If you’re motivated to win trophies and be praised as the “best debater”, then constantly setting yourself up to fail is definitely not the best path to your definition of success. But I’m of the mindset that debaters should have a very different goal. I’m of the mindset that, by having our definition of success be to win trophies, we end up missing out on the most valuable thing that debate has to offer: personal growth.
Aside from the relationships we form, the biggest gifts that competitive debate can offer are the lessons we learn. Winning rounds can be fun and rewarding, but thirty years from now I personally don’t think I’ll care all that much about whether I placed 1st or 4th in team policy last qualifier (and I have a feeling that you won’t either). Sure, you might still wish you had won, but at the end of the day, you will value the lessons that you learned a whole lot more.
Okay. So a successful debate career is one that optimizes growth. Why should we set ourselves up to fail again?
Failure Facilitates Skill-Growth
In debate, much like in life, staying comfortable is the surest way to stay stagnant. Staying within your normal boundaries feels safe and secure while being in uncomfortable, even painful situations causes you to reconsider and restructure your tactics and approach.
As humans, feelings of discomfort or pain from any given failure cause us to do two main things:
- Recognize our flaws where we lack in skill
- Doing something about it
Putting yourself in uncomfortable, difficult debate situations can end up propelling you past whatever roadblocks you personally face.
I had personal experience with this during my 2015 preseason when I joined Ethos xL and started getting coaching from Isaiah McPeak. Now, anyone who’s met Isaiah knows that he can be a pretty imposing person, especially on a coaching call, and especially when you’ve messed something up. I knew this just from hearing his lectures and doing a few drills. So when Abbey Lovett asked me who I wanted to coach my practice rounds, the least comfortable answer was Isaiah; but I said it anyway. Not because I wanted to fail, (trust me, I wanted the exact opposite), but because I thought that he was the most talented coach on the team. But it didn’t end up being his talent that pushed me to the next level; instead, it was my complete and utter failure.
The thing is, I am historically awful in skype debates. Although I like to think I’ve gotten better, they’ve just never really been my thing. And the fact that I was being coached by Isaiah didn’t help much. As I’m sure he remembers, I debated like it was my first year, and, even worse, when he asked me what I thought went wrong my answers were defensive and rambly: it was the quintessential failure. But, somehow, at the same time, it actually ended up being one of the most productive coaching calls I’ve ever had. Somehow, through my failure, Isaiah was able to help me rise up to the next level.
As my fifteen-year-old self learned in that abysmally uncomfortable coaching call, when we fail, we’re automatically forced to see our flaws and we automatically want to do something about them. Putting yourself in uncomfortable, difficult debate situations will end up improving your skills in the long run, if you’re willing to learn from your mistakes.
Failure Facilitates Personal Growth
When we fail, we typically experience feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy. These feelings are hard, but they can actually end up being one of the biggest catalysts for personal growth. For example, we all know that kids that always win are typically the least developed, mainly because they typically have very little real world experience with failure. In the same way, debaters that win the most oftentimes end up getting a lot less out of their debate experience.
Failure not only forces us to review our skillset, but it also forces us to review ourselves. Because of this, putting ourselves in uncomfortable, difficult debate situations is oftentimes the best way to grow individually.
Inevitably, we will all fail to some extent later in life. We should learn how to now, while there’s no risk.
There’s not Much at Risk
Compared to life, debate is a piece of cake.
Setting yourself up for failure in debate means you risk hurting your peers’ opinion of your skill, losing a medal, missing out on a possible future interning or brief writing job, a possible scholarship (though typically only if you’re going to PHC or Point Loma), and hurting some of your high school reputation. It’s not that there’s no risk — there definitely is. It’s just that in life, failure risks so much more.
In life, you risk hurting your peers’ opinion of your skill, losing recognition (could be an award, could be verbal affirmation), harming the future of your career, ruining the future of your relationships, damaging your future quality of life, your children’s future, your lifelong reputation, your relationship with God, etc.
In life, there’s a lot more pressure to succeed. So why not learn to fail when it means so little in the long run?
In debate, our goal should be to learn and grow, both in skill and personal maturity. But the best way to do this is by allowing ourselves to fail a little. That doesn’t mean you have to purposefully lose in finals or drop at least one ballot in semis. You should always try your very best, but don’t step down or hold back because you’re afraid of looking like a fool. Don’t skip out on the drill, don’t keep your hand down, and don’t leave out a risky argument you believe in. Instead of being afraid of failure, we should all embrace it as one of the greatest gifts debate has to offer. Instead of skipping out on the drill, we should beg to go first. Instead of keeping our hand down, we should raise it as high as possible.
Because when we fail, we grow.
“The phoenix must burn to emerge.” – Author Janet Fitch