Let’s Stop Talking About Failure


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The American college admissions process has became a zero-sum, Hobbesian, juggernaut. Advanced Placement classes proliferate to serve the insatiable gods of Achievement and Rigor, and panic attacks, sleep deprivation, and depression are as common in high schools as iced lattes.

Then suddenly a few years ago, adults in and around education started talking about teaching kids “how to fail” and urging students to “embrace failure” as though the grade-obsessed, high-stakes lunacy that is secondary school culture in America is somehow the kids’ fault. Gosh, they’re just such perfectionists; I wonder why they can’t seem to relax?

Leaving aside the massive socioeconomic and political reasons that we’ve arrived here, if we’re going to stick with our current system of secondary and postsecondary education we need to stop telling kids to embrace failure. Because they’re right: failure is often disastrous and it’s perfectly reasonable to try to avoid it.

Plus, of course students fear failure. They spend their whole academic lives graded on a system that ranges from A to F.  F is for failure. Failing a class means repeating it because you didn’t succeed at all. For adults in education to enable a bonkers system of relentless evaluation and then tell kids to “embrace failure” is the bully smacking you in the face with your own forearm while telling you to stop hitting yourself.

Striving for perfection, feeling driven by the sense that any mistake is catastrophic, is paralyzing. It inhibits intellectual growth because students are unwilling to confront anything remotely ambiguous or complex if it can be avoided. Perfectionism turns school into a frightening, dangerous place full of pitfalls waiting to ensnare.

Here’s an example of what I call the “Fail Spiral” that I see in students with an absurd level of frequency:

  1. I can’t remember the answer to this one quiz question.
  2. I am going to fail this quiz.
  3. My grade in this class will drag down my GPA
  4. I won’t get into a decent college
  5. My job prospects will be diminished
  6. A solitary life of grinding poverty stretches before me. I will die alone and unloved.
  7. Student excuses self to:
    1. Stand in hallway and have panic attack
    2. Go to restroom to vomit

I see this in fifteen-year-olds.

More so than students “not knowing how to fail,” the problem is that they perceive themselves as working within a system in which anything less than perfection will cause them to fall behind the more-perfect peers with whom they are competing for college admission and financial aid. And to a larger extent than we may want to admit, they are correct.

When We Say “Failure,” We Don’t Mean Failure

What we really mean when we urge young people to “embrace failure” is that we want them to have a broad sense of perspective; to accept and work through mistakes and shortfalls, and to be willing to take chances in their academic, intellectual and extracurricular endeavors. We want them to do their best without feeling that they have to be perfect and to understand that learning sometimes involves making mistakes. It’s better to be able to examine and learn from mistakes than to live a life devoted to avoiding them.

But failure is in an entirely different category, rhetorically speaking, than a mistake. It’s not the best word choice for our mission. When we refer to failure in general discourse, we mean something catastrophic: Heart failure, a failed state, a failed marriage, a failed business, or a parachute that failed to open. Most people don’t experience more than one or two of these in a lifetime, and few of them offer opportunities for growth.

“Failure” is apocalyptic. Students are right and reasonable to wonder why adults keep venerating failure so much that it seems to be an end in itself. We need better language when we talk about the sorts of setbacks and disappointments that lead to real growth.

A good start would be to try to create school cultures that allow students to be their genuine selves, and to feel supported and loved in whatever endeavors they pursue and at whatever levels they achieve. Adults can model a healthy sense of perspective as well as lives built on meaning and integrity rather than superficial achievement. A bit jargon-y perhaps, but urging students to embrace authenticity and self-reflection and helping them learn how to do so would be more useful than trying to sweet-talk them into embracing failure while punishing them every time they fail.




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