Growing up, my father would become enraged anytime I brought home a report card that wasn’t straight As. Though as a refugee he never got to finish university, he had high expectations for my sister and I. When there wasn’t anger, there was plenty of shame and disappointment to go around from everyone in my family. Many immigrant children and adults I’ve met can relate to this I’m sure.
My sister became an academic, and turned that fire into a nearly perfect performance at school. For me, the differences were stark: in subjects that I enjoyed I was consistently at the top of the class. In the rest, I was a solid B-B+. My parents expected their precocious kid to enjoy academia for its own sake, but I was heavily invested in the specific things I was learning and deeply influenced by my teachers.
This cycle taught me a very important lesson: how to become a high-performance slacker in the topics I didn’t care for. I would optimize my time and effort to earn that B or B+ so that I’d have more bandwidth to pursue the things that really mattered to me. I never made an extra effort in something that I found boring, doing just enough to “get by” at a level I felt comfortable with. This skill has served me quite well in my career, but a question has always dogged me: do I lack perseverance?
I devoted my undergraduate research work to answering some of these questions by studying and writing about gifted kids and their social-emotional affect. The literature then, as now, is rife with pointed lessons about the need to encourage perseverance in children so they can succeed. Grit is the single most predictive characteristic of future success in children, and in today’s hyper-competitive parenting universe, the desire to teach grit is higher than it’s ever been.
But when grit bumps up against boredom, for example when a child knows they prefer A vs B, is it more important to teach them to keep doing everything that’s expected, or to devote their energy to the things they care about? Is learning to winnow interests not a skill in itself? And if failure was a more positive state, would we even need to teach grit in the first place? Besides, not everything deserves perseverant energy, and we shouldn’t value pointless grit over meaningful effort.
This is what I call the Perseverance Paradox, an essential issue in developing Failosophy. We need resilience to succeed, but we don’t value the process of developing resilience (e.g. failure), itself. I believe there are a number of key factors influencing this. Here are my Top 3:
Learned Responses to Failure
From the time a kid is born until they reach their 40s, they are likely to have tried – and failed – at thousands of different activities and endeavors. Unless they manage to get super lucky or lack ambition (more on that in a minute) – they will fail many more times than they succeed.
But despite the emphasis on participation trophies, the vast majority of children’s education in failure will teach them the wrong things. It starts as early as school, when kids are subjected to open ridicule if they raise their hands and answer incorrectly. Perhaps it starts even earlier, as they learn to navigate the world, getting praise when they try to walk, but “oopsies” when they inevitably fall down.
Parents and teachers are busy, and there are many competing requirements for their attention. Though it is hard to do, the prescription would be to try and focus on the attempt and to weight the results (good or bad) equally in terms of praise.
Not All Failures are Created Equal
In my Failosophy research and coaching with many adult entrepreneurs – perhaps our society’s most significant risk-takers – one common thread sticks out: failure isn’t something people seem to get better at over time, even as they successfully reduce the likelihood of failure itself. Rather, high-stakes failures feel terrible each and every time they happen, and there seems to be little coping skills improvement from one cycle to the next. This may be because achievers naturally push themselves to ever-greater risks, or it may be because of avoidant behavior.
If your child is dispassionate, they may have an easier time of seeming unfazed by failure – but fundamentally, most of us experience it the same way.
As a start point for reframing failure with children, it’s helpful to have a taxonomy of kinds of failures, such as this one I’ve adapted from Burnett & Evans, the geniuses behind Stanford’s Designing Your Life course:
- Mess-ups – these are minor mistakes that are unimportant. Little energy should be devoted to understanding or fixing these, and kids should understand early how to spot and ignore them.
- Weakness – an issue that springs from a core personality or ability trait. These should mostly be things we teach our children to accept about themselves and not to dwell on these issues. Being aware of them does not necessarily mean expending lots of energy to fix them.
- Growth Opportunities – these are the situations that warrant most of our attention – what went wrong, why, what can we learn from it, how do we do better next time.
I also add another one in my failure coaching: Terminal Failure. These are failures that cannot be redeemed and need to be embraced. The most straightforward example is the death of a loved one. It isn’t usually your fault, but it certainly can feel like a failure to the survivors.
Once your child can understand how to differentiate between these issues, it is much easier to allocate scarce resources into fixing the ones that matter. Moreover, developing a non-attachment philosophy for the small (and immutable stuff) will serve them well in emotional regulation over time.
The gifted/talented literature is rife with cases that highlight how gifted kids “stay in their lane”, often eschewing challenges that could be really rewarding if they don’t believe they can perform to their usual potential. While there’s nothing inherently wrong here, teaching a positive attitude towards failure will also help reduce your smart kid’s tendencies to avoid challenges, and create an environment that better fosters (appropriate) risk-taking.
The critical skill here is one of self-inquiry. Teach your children to ask themselves the question “Why am I avoiding this challenge?” Let them think through the implications and observe their reactions without judgement. Over time, teach them to differentiate between “good” and “bad” avoidance. Good avoidance is deprioritizing things that don’t “spark joy” in Marie Kondo parlance. Bad avoidance is essentially a fear of failure.
This is not advocacy for children to ignore things that may be important for them to learn. Parental guidance is required to ensure that there isn’t wholesale abandonment of crucial subjects, such as math or critical thinking, simply because they are challenging.
Rather this is about teaching the skills necessary to focus, prioritize and embrace appropriate, meaningful failures on the path to success. This includes both the important and less important stuff and the skills necessary to tell the difference.
One of the most pernicious myths about intelligence is that “it finds a way.” This is the idea that precocious children simply become geniuses, regardless of environment. Certainly, those of exceptional skill come to the table with an inherent advantage, but if they don’t learn to embrace failure in all its forms, they may not be able to achieve their full potential.
And that potential truly is a terrible thing to waste.