Growing up in the 80s and 90s, my brother’s room was a shrine to Michael Jordan. After I came home one day, devastated about missing out on a part for a children’s theater production, I was taken by my brother to his display. He pointed at one of his favorite posters.
“You see that guy? He’s the best basketball player ever. And even HE was cut from a basketball team once. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
Even after “making it” in the NBA, the legendary player said himself, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed…..I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”
Michael Jordan is not alone in this perspective. Think of the names Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Babe Ruth, JK Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs. When you consider what they have in common, it’s likely that you think of them first as successes. And while that’s certainly true, what has made them successful is their shared ability to grow from failure.
Consider the combination of their experiences and their perspectives:
- Abraham Lincoln suffered business, political, and personal losses, and said, “My greatest concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”
- After thousands of light bulb prototypes, Thomas Edison responded to a reporter’s question about his “failure” by quipping, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
- The Great Bambino held the record for career home runs for decades, and is still in the top three of all time. But he struck out more often than he hit it out of the park, saying, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”
- Twelve publishers rejected Harry Potter before JK Rowling finally landed on a company that would put the tale in print. She offered this profound perspective on failure: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you may as well not have lived at all — in which case, you have failed by default.”
- Oprah Winfrey was told she didn’t have the right name for television and was fired as a news anchor because her boss felt she wasn’t a good fit. In her words, “Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.”
- Before revolutionizing the automobile industry, Henry Ford had been written off by everyone in the business after a string of failed ventures. He summed up his approach saying, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
- And Steve Jobs was famously fired from his own company before returning and creating an empire. He’s quoted as saying, “You’ve got to be willing to crash and burn. If you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far.”
It seems that those who excel have a healthy relationship with failure. Is this ability to learn and persevere through failure something we’ve forgotten to teach children? Is the concept of rigor sometimes confused with a zero tolerance for failure?
Some experts fear all three are true.
In Chapter 20 of our read along book, ,What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives (affiliate link), Rae Pica points out, speaking of children:
“Their home and school experiences have taught them that “effortless perfection” is the goal and that anything short of that is to be avoided at all costs. Indeed, many of today’s parents not only go to endless effort to protect their children from potential harm (real or imagined), they also go to extremes to ensure their children are protected from making mistakes — either out of fear that their children will fall apart should they prove to be imperfect or out of the belief that perfection is the only route to a successful future.”
But as Rae points out from an interview with Alina Tugend, pressure for perfection can result in a lack of resiliency, “a key characteristic in happy, successful adults.” And, I would add, a key characteristic of each of the success stories above. Indeed, as one of Rae’s radio guests noted, our preoccupation with performance may unintentionally create “victims of excellence”.
So how do we compensate?
Check Your Attitude- Promote an environment where it’s safe to take risks and learn from mistakes. But this means more than just saying so. We can repeat the phrase “Everyone makes mistakes” till we’re blue in the face, but if we blow up when real failure appears or use shame to call people out, which message do you think children will internalize? Include your own mistakes in this approach. It’s too easy for children to view adults as infallible. Don’t hide your own mistakes. Apologize when necessary. But don’t wallow in your own shortcomings either. Model how to roll with failure and get up again.
Encourage – The way we talk to children can have a big impact. We can support and encourage children as they learn from their failures. But we can also have an impact as we encourage them in their successes. Using encouragement over praise can make a big difference, as exemplified by the research done by Carol Dweck. Read more in my two-part series: Praise Junkies Beware and Praise Junkies Part 2.
Process Not Just Product – Talk and support children through the process of learning new things and taking risks. Recognize the process of learning and creating is often more valuable than the product. That means we don’t rescue them from hard things like conflicts, math problems, or zipping up jackets. We give support in the struggle and let them do the work within their zone. (Read more about scaffolding and the zone of proximal development here.) Remember that it is our responsibility to teach the process of learning, not just the subject.
As the title of this article proclaims, “It’s a mistake not to use mistakes as part of the learning process!”
Of all the things we work so hard to teach children, perhaps one of the most important things we can teach them is that success is not the absence of failure, but the product of persevering through it.
What are your perspectives and observations when it comes to teaching resiliency over perfection?
This section of the reading also included the topics of handwriting and technology, so share your thoughts on those chapters as well.
And as always, share your questions for the author, Rae Pica. She’ll be answering YOUR questions in the last post in the series!