Learning to Fail Well
If you want to succeed, you need to learn to fail well. This counterintuitive bit of wisdom was emphasized yesterday as I listened to a radio program on one of Boston’s NPR stations in a segment titled, “Parents: Letting Your Kids Fail Will Make Their Lives Better.” And I think it’s generally good advice.
The basic premise was that many children, teenagers, and young adults today are crippled by the fear of failure, which arises from a number of factors and contributes to a number of problematic outcomes. Among some of the more immediate factors, especially for the younger members of the generation, is the way parents are increasingly “shielding” or attempting to shield their children from any experience of failure. This might manifest itself in terms of large-scale overprotection, but it usually appears as parents interrupting the normal sequence of childhood and young-adult coping with the daily difficulties of life. Everything from a disappointing grade on a math test to a run-of-the-mill childhood fight between best friends elicits parental intervention.
The effects of this sort of interventionism and ostensible “protection” (recall that the ‘road to hell is paved with good intentions’) range from an inflated sense of entitlement and specialness to crippling fear of the most mundane forms of daily disappointment in school, in one’s career, and in personal relationships. If you’ve “never failed” then how would you ever know how to negotiate the little and big failures, rejections, and difficulties you will inevitably face?
Some of the experts on the NPR program, including Hara Estroff Marano, an editor at Psychology Today; Jessica Lahey, a teacher and journalist; and Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer at Harvard’s grad school in education, expressed some serious concerns along these lines about students and young adults at various levels of their development and discussed some of the implications for a generation coming of age with these sorts of hangups.
One of the most resonating narratives came from Lahey, whose recent article in The Atlantic reveals the truth and effects of this sort of parenting and student-fear-of-failure in the elementary-school and high-school classrooms. She summarizes, early in her piece, the gist of the phenomenon:
The stories teachers exchange these days reveal a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.
I come from a family of teachers (my mother used to teach in an elementary school and, for the last few years, has taught high-school english; my brother used to teach high-school math and now teaches math at the college level; both an aunt and uncle are elementary school teachers in New York) and a circle of friends that are teachers (one of my best friends from college is a rock-star elementary-school teacher in her district; another friend’s fiancé is a high-school teacher; another close friend teaches high school in one of the most difficult inner-city districts in the US; one of my college roommates is finishing his PhD in education from Cornell; and, of course, all of my colleagues in doctoral studies are preparing from some sort of education-related career) — my world is very much a world of education.
I’ve heard more anecdotal evidence over the years to support the first-hand accounts of what was discussed in this segment than I have time and space here to rehearse. The stories can be horrifying — not just because parents, especially at the elementary and high-school level, are so rude, demanding, and accusatory with teachers who really only want the best for the children and teenagers, but because in the process one knows — especially the teachers who spend 6-8 hours a day, 5 days a week, most of the year, with these kids — how destructive and unhelpful it is by way of life-skill development and self-confidence building to “protect” kids from “failure.”
Many of you know that I’ve also had, since 2009, the great joy and privilege (and challenge) of teaching at the college level. Every year since the Fall of 2009 I’ve taught at least one course at a variety of universities — in a program at Trinity University in Washington, for a full academic year at Siena College, and in the summers of 2012 and 2013 in the department of theology at St. Bonaventure University. I’ve also had my fair share of the effects of this “protection from failure” playing out with interventionist parenting (which I do not indulge, stating to parents who call or email that it is against the law for me to talk about a 18+ old student’s academic performance, which it is thanks to FERPA, and always direct them to the academic vice president’s office if they have a concern). But that has actually been quite rare in my experience. More often than not it is the students themselves who exhibit the anxiety, fear, and paralyzing effects of the possibility that “they’ll get it wrong.” I even know quite a few adults and graduate students who also have these same concerns. Maybe you’re one of them.
All of this is to say that there is a real problem in our contemporary education and child-rearing culture that has dangerous psychological and emotional consequences for a large number of people. One of the things that I found most troubling about the data and narrative experience was the realization that one of the things that suffers most is creativity. It’s not so much that one’s inability to cope with the disproportionate anxiety from fear of failure makes somebody unintelligent or stupid, it’s that it makes them uncreative because they can never take the risk that comes with creativity.
If you want to be a successful painter, you will at-first fail on numerous canvases.
If you want to be a successful mathematician, you will at-first fail in solving the equations.
If you want to be a successful writer, your manuscripts will be rejected endlessly until one of them isn’t.
But…there will never come a point when you stop failing, because that’s what creativity is about. What works can only be known against the backdrop of what doesn’t — and if you’re too afraid to ever risk establishing that backdrop, personally and professionally, then you’ll never know what success is like.
There is a very Christian dimension to all of this, by the way. The Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are replete with failures — the disciple’s constant misunderstanding, Peter’s denials, the struggles Paul encounters with early Christian communities — not to mention Jesus’s Crucifixion, which we recognize and celebrate as something that is the greatest scandal and foolishness precisely because it is an objective failure.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, we have the beautiful images in Jeremiah, for example, in the potter’s house where he comes to understand that even as Israel screws everything up over and over again — like a potter with clay in hand — God is patient and allows the remodeling to take place, to try again, to become the beautiful creation intended from the beginning.
If we cannot live because we fear failure, then we cannot be good Christians because it is a faith that is predicated on being oftentimes diametrically opposed to “worldly success.” Just as in the educational, social, and professional world, if you want to be successful, then you need to learn to fail well.
UPDATE: Just saw this story in the latest New York Times Magazine on a related theme: “Why can some kids handle pressure while others fall apart.”