We know it and admire it when we see it—the resilience of those who press on despite setbacks, disappointments, or long odds. We see the successes of individuals in every arena, who achieve their goals only after refocusing their efforts following initial failures. Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper because "he lacked imagination and had no good ideas;” Thomas Edison invented 1,000 failures before the light bulb; and Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Success is clearly a messy endeavor. Why, then, is there so much pressure to achieve instant success, rather than emphasis on dealing with and learning from failure?
Research has shown that qualities like grit and determination—though more easily identified in some people than others—can be acquired by everyone. This understanding of personal growth is particularly meaningful for our children, whose potential and ability to succeed is directly related to their belief that they can and will change. “I am not good at that” needs to become “I am not good at that yet.”
Other than at home, the most fertile ground for developing this understanding is an educational environment that provides a safe place for students to try something new without fear of failure. The point is not to prevent failure, but to prevent quitting after failure, and to equip students with the tools to get up after falling down. The most important outcome of trying something new is not success; rather it is self-discovery, growth, and resilience that position us for future success.
Lessons in character, effort, and resilience come in many forms, often at the hands of failure. Sure, getting something right the first time offers instant gratification and confidence, but the by-products of hard-earned success is likely to be deeper and longer lasting—becoming the permanent building blocks for hard work and persistence.
Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D., of the Greater Good Science Center, advises us to make sure that fear of failure does not define a child’s sense of self worth. By placing a greater value on effort over ability, parents and teachers can instill in children an appreciation for hard work and the resilience that invariably accompanies success. Students should not be instructed to ‘try harder’ when they have failed, since much effort may have been expended in the first place. Rather, we should help them see that trying again in a different way may yield a different result. Zakrzewski also urges students to practice self-compassion. Students who do not beat themselves up when they encounter difficulty are more likely to try again without fear. Finally, it has been shown that students who have strong relationships with their teachers and feel that their teachers genuinely care about them are more likely to trust their teachers when instructed to try again.
One of the most important things—if not the most important—we can do for our children is to help them develop self-confidence. With the right tools, students will become self-aware learners who can navigate the world and self advocate with assurance. We do this not by handing them a series of vacant successes, but by providing ample opportunities to step into the deep end, with lifeguards at the ready, to learn first how to stay afloat and then how to swim the length of the pool. We do this by providing challenge and support in equal measure so the process yields resilience first, then success. Learn more at www.providencecountryday.org and check out the research of Marty Seligman, Christopher Peterson, and Carol Dweck.