By Kelly Huegel Madrone, author of LGBTQ: The Survival Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens
As mentors, how do we help kids succeed? Perhaps we’ve largely been starting with the wrong (or at least an unhelpful) question. Instead, maybe what we define as success would come more readily to young people if we focused on helping them fail.
In his book Late Bloomers, Rich Karlgaard underscores a disturbing trend: skyrocketing anxiety rates among young people due, in part, to a crippling fear of failure. So venerated are the handful of tech giants who dropped out of school to develop and sell a software company and who became billionaires before they could legally buy beer, the YouTubers who have enough cash and cache to retire before they can drive, and even the activists who’ve addressed the UN or created their own global nonprofits before graduating high school, that young people feel that if they haven’t achieved high-profile status by the time they depart their teens, they’re already behind.
This terrifying fear of failure in the day-to-day—which can look like fear of not getting the lead in the play, not winning the student body presidency, or not getting A’s in an AP class—is becoming crippling, making young people afraid to try anything at which they might not succeed.
Studies show that when kids are pressured to achieve within a “you’re either smart, talented, beautiful or you’re not” culture, they’re more likely to cheat or otherwise take deceptive actions to preserve the perception that they were born all that instead of having to learn it. (Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos, which she founded when she was just 19 years old and lied extensively to protect as it began to tank, is a high-profile example.)
How do we as teachers, parents, and other adults engaged with young people combat this disturbing trend? One of the most effective things we can do is emphasize the value of swinging and missing.
Spanx founder Sara Blakely (the world’s first self-made female billionaire) famously talks about how embracing failure helped her get where she is today. Blakely’s father frequently asked his kids, “What did you fail at today?” because in their house, failure was a good thing—it meant you were trying. As a result, when Blakely didn’t pull the LSAT scores she needed to pursue a career as a lawyer, she kept her head up and applied herself to something else (with considerable rigor).
One of the most common complaints I hear about the education system is that it is too focused on teaching to standardized measures—that it teaches kids how to take tests, not how to learn. The fact is that some of our greatest learning comes from failure; however, in a system that doesn’t honor that, many kids become afraid to try.
I remember one of my bodywork teachers told us, “Be glad if you get some questions wrong on the test—I guarantee you that in practice, those are the things you’ll never forget.”
Learning how to fail successfully also helps foster healthy self-esteem. We no longer look at a grade letter as a symbol of our worth, but instead focus on our willingness to persist in engaging with the process.
As a creative coach, I tell people that great stories involve failure and defeat, living them and writing them. Imagine reading a story where the protagonist simply succeeds at everything that comes their way. Bo-ring. And what have I learned as the reader? Not much.
What I try to impart to my clients is that a best-selling author achieves that status not because they were born a great writer, but because they were willing to fail over and over again and keep trying. Perseverance is 90 percent or more of the writing game.
And it’s 90 percent or more of the life game.
The more we can help young people not just endure a process in which failure is inherent, but appreciate it, the better we can prepare them for life. The more we can open their minds and spirits to true learning, the less afraid of failure they will become. Their failures will still define them, but in an entirely different way.
How do we do that?
Show the path to learning. Celebrate failure. Discuss its benefits and the knowledge returns that each attempt netted.
For young kids, books such as Rosie Revere, Engineer and the Amazon show Tumble Leaf in particular celebrate failure and the process of figuring it out. For older readers, Sarah Lewis’s book The Rise dissects accomplishment by presenting stories of how folks from all walks of life persisted in the face of failure.
Public speaking presents perhaps one of the best opportunities to celebrate failure because it’s something most of us are terrified to do. Instead of having students prepare and deliver talks, show them how to make a presentation great.
I’ve performed narrative stories to large audiences, and while the prospect of standing in front of hundreds of people all by my lonesome was nerve-racking, it was also exhilarating because I’d learned how to prepare—I’d been taught how to succeed. I practiced and performed for producers and friends, tweaked and retweaked to learn what language, beats, pauses, and even facial expressions drew a desired reaction and which didn’t. These were invaluable learning experiences.
It was similar with my teaching education in college. We recorded our lessons and workshopped them. We got feedback. It wasn’t one and done. Again, we learned how to succeed.
Students can be taught across curriculum in this way. Talk about vocal tone and inflection and how we hear things differently. Study the power of body language and how various gestures or expressions mean different things in different cultures. Study great orators in history and what made them effective. Workshop talks together so students can see how their skills improve, along with those of their fellow students, then maybe even show off the results at a schoolwide performance.
The possibilities for failure are endless. Embrace them.
Kelly Huegel Madrone is a freelance writer, writing coach, and speaker. She has worked for the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., chapter of PFLAG where she helped provide support and educational services to LGBT people and their families. The author of two books and more than 100 published articles, Kelly holds a degree in secondary education. She lives in New Mexico with her wife Mala and their daughters. Kelly welcomes readers to follow her on Twitter @LGBTQguide or visit her website at kellymadrone.com.
Kelly is the author of LGBTQ: The Survival Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens.
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