Photo: Kat J
I’m not going to apply for this job because I may not get it.
I’ve heard this statement from several students in the course of my career as a law professor. And it’s not just job applications. Students are shocked when I criticize their writing. Students are distraught when they get anything less than an A-.
We’re raising a new generation that doesn’t know how to fail.
As Jessica Bennett writes for the New York Times, “faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term ‘failure deprived’ to describe what they were observing: the idea that, even as they were ever more outstanding on paper, students seemed unable to cope with simple struggles.” According to the American College Health Association, this inability to confront setbacks has, in turn, correlated with an increase in depression and anxiety across college campuses.
And it’s not the students’ fault.
We’re genetically wired to fear failure. Centuries ago, failure meant getting eaten alive by a saber-tooth tiger. The ancestors who weren’t afraid of failing didn’t live long enough to pass on their genes to offspring.
We then reinforce this genetic wiring against failure in our own offspring. We don’t let them fall on the grass. We coddle them with participation trophies. We reframe their failures as successes. We focus on conventional metrics of success — the right grades, the right college, the right job.
We put their training wheels on but never take them off.
This attitude reminds me of the famous scene from A Few Good Men. Our children are like Tom Cruise yelling, “I want the truth!” We respond as Jack Nicholson does: “You can’t handle the truth.”
To a child raised in this environment, failure can be a deeply unfamiliar experience. If children have never experienced failure, they assume they won’t be able to survive it. In their mind, failure is trauma. They become adults utterly unprepared to deal with minor setbacks and fathom even the possibility of failing — because we’ve never really let them fail before.
This deep-seated fear of failure is paralyzing. Behind every canvas unpainted, every goal unattempted, every business unlaunched, every book unwritten, and every song unsung is the looming fear of failure.
Let your children fail more often.
I know you have the best of intentions. You’re trying to protect them and make them happy. But resist that natural parental instinct. By shielding our children from failure, we’re doing them a serious disservice.
Here are four ideas.
1. Share your own failures with your children
While your children may rebel against you, they still put you on a pedestal. Tell them about how you’ve failed in your own life. Share with them your struggles at work — and even better, ask them how you should handle them. Encourage them to exercise their problem-solving muscles by developing potential solutions to your roadblocks.
2. Allow opportunities for failure
I don’t mean deliberately imposing catastrophic failures on your children. I mean giving them the breathing room to fail. Encourage them to tackle complex problems, try new things, and push their boundaries.
By doing this, you’ll be vaccinating them with minor failures. Just like introducing weak antigens can stimulate learning in our immune system and prevent against infections, letting your children fail can help them build the resilience they’ll need as adults.
Take a cue from Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx. She went from selling fax machines door-to-door to becoming the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. She credits her success to a question that her father would ask her every week when she was growing up: “What have you failed at this week?”
If Sara didn’t have an answer, her father would be disappointed. To him, failing to try was far more disappointing than failure itself.
3. Turn failures into learning moments
When your children fail, approach their failure — not with dismay or angst — but with curiosity. Isn’t it interesting how sometimes things work and other times they don’t? Let’s figure out what happened here.
As Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Interesting outcomes, after all, are just awful outcomes with the volume of drama turned way down.”
4. Treat success and failure as the same
We assume success and failure are binary outcomes, but they’re not. The line between the two can be exceedingly thin, and we ignore it at our peril.
Learning moments for children should follow both success and failure. We tend to attribute our children’s success to their genius tendencies and good genes, and ignore the role that luck and privilege play in the process.
So, regardless of outcome, ask, What went right here? What went wrong? And what can you learn from this?
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By the way, this post is a Trojan Horse. You should follow these strategies in your own life, as much as you do with your children.
Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned law professor and bestselling author. Click here to download a free copy of his e-book, The Contrarian Handbook: 8 Principles for Innovating Your Thinking. Along with your free e-book, you’ll get the Weekly Contrarian — a newsletter that challenges conventional wisdom and changes the way we look at the world (plus access to exclusive content for subscribers only).