BEing Blog 11 – Failure
How can I teach a teenager that it is ok to fail? So many students are afraid to step out of their comfort zone for fear of failure.
– Carl Condliffe
Failure at any age is often a tough pill to swallow. The teenage years are probably one of the hardest. They’re not a little kid anymore trying a whole lot of new stuff and not expecting to be good at it. They’re trying to develop a sense of self identity that is tied to what you are good at. And their brains are still developing, especially the emotional centres.
New Zealand is an interesting place to grow up. Not only will you get ripped out by your mates (and not your mates) if you mess something up. We also have to deal with Tall Poppy syndrome where we get cut down if we stand out. So if we go and try something out of our comfort zone, the perception of the outcome is going to be negative either way. We “fail” and we get ripped out, we “succeed” and we get cut down. It’s not surprising that we stay nice and comfortable.
Keeping kids safe and comfortable and away from any hardship or challenge doesn’t set them up for success later in life. It ends up with a whole lot of people living unfulfilled lives, who haven’t developed the skills needed to solve tough problems, and often wind up with a sense of entitlement. Inability to be able to deal with failure has also been linked to mental health challenges, especially depression, general anxiety, and social anxiety. We as a society have a responsibility to do something about this.
The most sustainable and successful way to teach develop the ability to fail is to change their perception around it. We need to frame failure as a positive, as a learning experience, rather than a negative. In essence we need to ensure that kids have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset as described by Carol Dweck.
I believe the best way to do this is to start having conversations about failure and the positive benefits of it, especially if we can contrast it to what will happen if there is no attempt. We can normalise the concept of failure by talking about it often, instead of stigmatising it as something horrible that we never talk about because we don’t want it to happen. The more positive reinforcement someone hears about failure, the more likely they are to accept it as something that is normal rather than something to be avoided.
There are lots of ways to go about this, but some of my favorites I’ve listed here….
Prominent leaders or role models discussing times that they have failed. These people might be athletes, artists, business people, or other types of influencers. Ideally the wider array of role models the better, as each story will reach a different demographic. The focus of the story should be on the transient nature of failure, yes it stings at the time but you can use it as a learning experience for next time.
Group discussions about favorite failures and learning. Role model stories are great about overcoming failure, however there is still some distance between a student and a role model. Peer discussions about failure can be even more powerful, as those stories are often more relatable to teenagers, or in fact anyone struggling with fear of failure. It is important that these discussions be a “safe space” for people talking, that there is no ridicule of people who have failed. People often find it difficult to share first, so in preparing for a group discussion it might be beneficial to approach someone who is confident to share their story first. Having someone share first gives everyone else the permission to share their stories and perspectives.
Assignments on positive aspects of failure. Some people learn well by having a discussion, others learn better by writing things down. Framing the focus of the writing to the positive aspects of failure gets a teenager to flip their usual perspective that failure is negative. Hopefully this not only helps develop a positive relationship with failure, but also helps expand the diversity of perspective of the teenager.
Tim Ferriss is one of my favourite authors and podcasters. His TED talk titled “Why you should define your fears instead of your goals” is a fantastic talk, but more importantly an exercise to run through to face down whatever fear you have.
Fear of failure can be paralysing.
When we fail it usually stings at the time.
BUT, if we fail to fail, then we never give ourselves the opportunity to reach our full potential and live an amazing life.
by Chris Desmond
Author of the Uncomfortable is OK podcast. Chris chats to fascinating people doing interesting things. These folks inspire him to get out of his comfort zone through their actions and ideas. Chris also tries to get practical tips from his guests about the process they used for breaking through their discomfort.
Read more about Chris here.