Monday, October 26, 2015

The Fine Art of Failure

I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles overcome while trying to succeed.”      - Booker T. Washington

was doing some research on a completely unrelated topic when I stumbled across a Psychology Today article called “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges” by Dr. Peter Gray.   It spoke to the fact many students are starting college without basic life skills to help them handle adversity or even (gasp!) failure.  It’s a result of controlling parents who either push their kids too hard to be successful or refuse to see their own child’s foibles and blame everyone in sight for their own parenting misdeeds.  

These well meaning parents have been orbiting their children for years to prevent any adversity including dealing with disappointments or even simple life challenges to darken their child’s door. One university reported that emergency calls for counseling had doubled over even the simplest disagreements such as a student being called at bitch by her roommate or dealing with finances for the first time.  Two other students needed counseling after they called the police when they spotted a mouse in their off-campus apartment.  The officer was kind enough to set a mouse trap for the errant rodent.  

My question is not so much what has happened to kids these days but what the

hell happened to us as parents that made us  think that by wrapping our children in emotional bubble wrap we could keep anything bad from happening to them?  I’m not talking about abduction or sexual assault.  No, I’m talking about dealing with the consequences of being a total dumb ass - forgetting to do your homework, not studying for tests, forgetting to do things that they promised to do and just not knowing how to be a good friend because being self-centered takes precedence.  Where has the disconnect come between the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials?  Why can’t we let our children fail or stand to lose when clearly they were bettered by an opponent with a higher skill level?  Why does everyone have to be a winner and get participant ribbons?  The very notion is pulling down the whole idea of success.   If our children don’t have obstacles - how will they grow?

Take learning to walk.  Now, your parents could have coaxed you, could have held your hands while you took those first tentative steps but through trail and error - you finally figured it out.  They didn’t get on the ground and lift one leg up and down for hours and days on end until the synapses figured out how to accomplish this basic life skill.  Babies get up, they fall down, they get up again, they fall down.  Sometimes they think it’s funny - sometimes they get frustrated but eventually they figure it out in their own time.  It comes from failing hundreds if not thousands of times until the light comes on and then one foot goes in front of the other.  I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a baby or toddler at the moment that they finally figure it out but the look on their face is nothing short of pure joy - the moment they develop that first sense of autonomy.  It’s a bitter sweet moment for parents - it’s the first of many steps that they take away from us.  Maybe that reality is why some of us work like hell to make sure they are never too far.  

We're reaping the effects of making sure our children have every advantage and
over schedule them to the point the have little down time to examine who they are because each block of time is devoted to baseball, football, soccer, ballet, piano, etc.  They are expected to exceed and when they don’t - it’s not because they might lack the drive or talent but it’s because the coach, the teacher or the director is not giving them a fair shake.  Worse, some parents are doing their children’s homework to keep their grades up while they are rushing from one activity to another.  The reality is that is that facade will crack - the test grades will prove that the brilliant insights these kids have at home for some reason do not transfer to the classroom.   Further, because of those schedules, they are not expected to do housework, clean their rooms, learn how to do laundry or cook because it’s done for them.  

Then when it’s time to go off to college and Mom and Dad are not scheduling every hour - they are at a loss.  The parents struggle with that separation because while they’ve been running them everywhere - they have not developed outside interests so when that empty nest presents itself both parties are at a loss as to what to do.   They both mourn the loss of this phase of their life but rather than move onto the next phase they are stuck.  Parents are literally calling college professors about poor grades the same way they did in grade school and totally unaware of how frankly messed up this is.  The kids feel unworthy at the dawn of any adversity and the rate of depression among young adults is at an all time high.  A  2012 Healthline article written by Michael Kerr found that:
  • 1 out of every 4 college students suffers from some form of mental illness, including depression
  • 44 percent of American college students report having symptoms of depression
  • 75 percent of college students do not seek help for mental health problems
These statistics keep some college professors from giving bad grades for fear of causing emotional distress that can lead to serious psychosis.  As a result, colleges lower their standards because they are afraid of lawsuits resulting from nervous breakdowns or suicides.  Of course, this is not news to teachers who have been seeing this trend for years and now those overly protected children are off to college no more able to handle things then when they were in the sixth grade.   

Which is why we need to sit our kids down and tell them it’s okay to fail.  It’s okay to try something new and not hit it out of the park the first time at bat - hell it might take many times at bat to even make contact with the ball.  That’s okay - it’s life and not everything you try to do is going to go perfectly the first time or the sixth time or the 100th time.   It might even be good to abandon the whole concept of perfect - it just doesn’t exist.   Sorry you A-type personalities, you can try for excellence, you can try to go beyond the parameters of the project but it will never, ever be perfect - so let yourself and your kids off the hook.  Studies have shown that many successful CEOs and American Presidents were actually C students who could see the big picture rather fixating on small details that just slowed them down.   Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates were C students as were John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and George Bush both Jr. and Sr.  

One of my colleagues told me recently that her son was asked to do a paper on a historical figure and one of the paragraphs had to be a time that person faced adversity or failure.   That is an important lesson for kids to absorb - that greatness is not achieved overnight and it can be a lifelong process.  Here’s a short list of great people who failed many times before they finally got it right:
  • Thomas Edison tried 1,000 lights prototypes before he finally was successful creating the light bulb. 
  • Albert Einstein was expelled from school and refused admittance to Zurich Polytechnic School. 
  • Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a TV reported because she was “unfit for TV.”
  • Dr. Seuss’ first book To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was rejected 27 different times. 
  • Steven Spielberg was rejected by the University of Southern California film school three times.  
  • Elvis Presley was fired after one show at the Grand Old Opry and told to go back to driving a truck. 
  • Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team but it didn’t stop him
    from pursuing what he loved doing. "I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
Success takes risk and risk comes with failure.  I’ve bombed on stage more times then I’ve felt like I’ve done a good sketch and I’ve been doing comedy improv for almost 30 years.  But I learn so much more from the stuff that tanks than I do from the scenes that are a hit.  Failure helps me figure out what audiences want and by eliminating the parts of scenes that have failed in the past - it helps me figure out what will work in the future.  

“Success requires passion, perseverance, emotional intelligence and the ability to understand the value of failure.” - John Haltiwanger, Elite Daily

If we don’t allow anything to happen to our children then nothing will ever happen for them.  The reality is that failing is part of life - it should not be feared - it should be embraced as part of our learning process.  As parents we must give our kids room to fail and give them a soft place to fall.  Just don’t rob them of the opportunity to take that leap of faith because falling before you reach the other side is half the journey. 

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