Fear of failure, by proxy

Alex is doing a presentation (“spreekbeurt”) at school today, about dragons.

I’ve done plenty of presentations, academically, profesionally and recrationally. I’m the kind of person who sweats bullets over homework, stays up whole nights studying for exams, and freaks out at the idea of being unprepared. Abi’s the same.

So it’s hard for me when Alex shows a stubborn lack of interest in his own school work. When I offer to help, he gets grumpy and insists he can do it himself. When I ask him to turn off his game and actually do the work, he gets angry. I get annoyed at his attitude. Everyone is miserable.

I so want to help! I want him to do get good grades! I want him to impress his classmates with his mad PowerPoint skills, and encyclopedic knowledge of all things draconic! What can’t he just do what I’d do?


I want?” This isn’t about me. Every parent wants their child to work hard, to do their best, to excel. But what if they don’t? Disappointment? Scorn?

“Look” I said. “If you don’t spend more time on this presentation, you’re might fail. Is that what you want?”

“Well, live and learn!” Alex said defiantly.

He has the truth of it. This isn’t a doctoral thesis defense, or a speech at TED. It’s a five-to-ten minute classroom presentation at primary school. If he fumbles, all that will happen is that he’ll get a poor grade for this one thing. It won’t stop him from moving up to the next class after the summer. It won’t stop him from getting a job when he graduates. It won’t stop me loving him.

What is the lesson I want Alex to learn from this non-critical event, in the safe, nurturing environment of his primary school? Is it that he should live in constant fear of failure or poor performance, and that the only way to avoid it is to spend all his time trying to stop the hammer from falling? Or that failure (or even just imperfection) is part of life; that it is something he can deal with; that afterwards he can pick himself up and carry on?

Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to be the best to be recognized?

Not everyone can be the best in their chosen field. Not every child is above average. I don’t want to glorify failure or advocate laziness, but in the pursuit of excellence we should not vilify the ordinary.

Amsterdam tourist tip: the free ferries across the river

As a tourist in Amsterdam, there’s a good chance you will arrive at Centraal Station, leave by the front, and spend most of your time in “the centre” — the concentric canals, bridges, merchant houses, cafés, museums, and sights make it a beautiful place to wander and cycle.

But if you want a slightly different view of the city, try heading out of the station in the opposite direction. Out the back is where you will find the river IJ (pronounce it “eye” or “aye”, and you’ll be close enough), and the ferries to take you to “Noord” (North).

With the exception of the green “Fast Fying Ferryhydrofoil to IJmuiden, the passenger ferries across the river are completely free. No tickets, no hassle — you just walk on (bikes and scooters are allowed on board), and enjoy the ride. There are various routes, but the ones I take most often are the “short ferry” to Buiksloterweg and the “long ferry” to NDSM.

The short ferry runs at least every 10 minutes day and night, and the crossing only takes a few minutes. The Buiksloterweg is on the other side of the river, directly opposite the station. You can sit yourself down at the very pleasant Café De Pont for a drink or something to eat, and watch the river traffic go by, with a great view of the back of the station. Film (and architecture) buffs may also be interested in the newly opened Dutch Film Museum in the eye-opening EYE building.

The long ferry is my favourite, though. It leaves once every 30 minutes throughout the day (every 15 minutes during commute hours), and is a relaxing 12-minute trip a couple of kilometers down the IJ to the NDSM Werf, a former shipbuilding an industrial area that is gradually transforming into a hot spot for local festivals and fresh startups. The ferry docks right next to an abandoned Zulu-class Soviet submarine.

Right at the end of the NDSM ferry you can relax at the trendy IJkantine, or walk a bit further to hang out at the more funky and organic Noorderlicht. (Ask for a cup of fresh mint tea if you’re into that kind of thing.) Both places have outdoor seating with great views of the river if it’s a nice day. NDSM is also a good point for setting off on a cycle ride to the countryside North of the city: Het Twiske, a lovely nature reserve (with a windmill!), is just a few miles away.

NDSM is the home of the Pancake Boat: a small cruise ship that will take you on an hour-long trip up and down the IJ, while serving an all-you-can-eat pancake buffet. Great views of the city, and enough food to choke a horse; fun for all the family.