July 19, 2017

Learning to Fail


I guess I shouldn't be surprised by much of anything anymore. An article in the New York Times a few weeks ago detailed one of the hottest new presentations on college campuses: "How to Fail."  These seminars are designed to confront something that too many college freshmen have never faced: not being the best in the room.

Taking home a gold trophy for participation after a season of little league, never getting a grade lower than an A-, always having their wishes fulfilled, hovering helicopter parents protecting children from facing the reality of a world full of disappointment....these young adults don't know how to handle failure. Depression and dropout rates reflect the problems with a generation who spent life in a bubble.

Colleges have discovered that the problem is serious enough that these students need help in accepting less than perfection from themselves. They have to learn that a B or C isn't a mark of a loser. Not getting a class they want, or having a less than perfect roommate is part of life. Failing to be picked by your first choice Greek house is way down on the important list. Being trolled on social media is small potatoes.

This is one part of life retirees don't need to worry about. We don't need a class in failing occasionally, sometimes spectacularly. We know life isn't fair, some folks are jerks, and few people ever ask to see your resume later in life.

The mark of a life well lived is in how we respond to disappointment and failure. A complete life leaves a trail of good and bad, happy and sad. Friends and enemies populate our past. Sometimes family members need to take a time out. Sometimes we need to sit in the corner for awhile.

Only if we let those events, both positive and negative, define who we are, should we sign up for one of these courses. By now we have learned the art of balance, of compromise, of accepting. We look forward to challenges rather than avoiding them. We appreciate the nuances of life, the things that paint our canvas with subtle or unexpected colors.

I am pleased higher education has discovered the need for teaching failure as well as success. That bodes well for the proper maturation of the students lucky enough to participate. It suggests that when they are ready to retire they will know what we learned on our own: a life is build through a series of stumbles and advances, adversities and achievements. 

Ultimately, a satisfying retirement is what that process creates. 



29 comments:

  1. Well written...This is a subject that has been on my mind lately. A news story was published this week that 47% of the high school graduates in our state had an "A" average. We have great public schools in Tennessee, but I view this statistic with a bit of skepticism as to whether it was truly earned. Another statistic showed that the college freshman dropout was also high, so perhaps college professors are doing the right thing.

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    1. There are all types of inflation. Grade inflation and achievement inflation are two that immediately come to mind. Your observation about the apparent disconnect between reported grade success in high school that isn't reflected in college stats is a good example.

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  2. Right on! I am so proud of myself! I have fallen into so many " buckets of manure" in my life that I am surprised I don't reek! But, each time I came out " smelling like a rose". A great career that had lumps like yours, but each time I won.

    I was offered positions at Harvard twice, but turned them down basically because I didn't need Harvard on my resume. Also, because my South Carolina wife didn't want to freeze.

    But, I always was ready to try something new and challenging. Many times I won which made up for the several times I crashed and burned. But, if it wasn't for those bad times I wouldn't appreciate how great the good times were. Retired at the top after 10 years doing what I absolutely loved and where I was honored and respected.

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    1. Success without failure is impossible. If you don't miss the mark occasionally how could you know when you are succeeding? I applaud the colleges who are taking on this problem, one that should have been dealt with at home and in earlier grades but wasn't.

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  3. I feel for the kids who were put in this situation by their parents and others around them growing up, and I am very glad to not have been a recipient of such people. Many of the things that hurt the most in life, such as not making a sports team because I wasn't good enough, or not making sales goal one year, galvanized me to try that much harder. Every time it worked out for the best. When I started to see the trend many years ago of "trophies for everyone" and "no one is a failure", I knew it would not turn out well. The college recognizing that is interesting, but I wonder how they teach the course. If they coddle the students then they will walk away not thinking any differently than they are, while leaving them ill-equipped to handle rejection. Sad that anyone was put into such a position by family and institutions that pushed that agenda.

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    1. From what I read in the article about these college seminars they seem pretty much on point. Some young adults will not absorb the information and continue to expect a gold-plated experience. I would guess the majority learn something about how college is so different from what came before. Maybe the person doesn't really understand the concept until the first time he gets a low grade or realizes that all his classes expect more than he is capable of giving.

      The "trophies for everyone" mindset is damaging and not productive. Parents think they are protecting their child. Really, they are setting them up for more heartbreak and disappointment.

      My parents never did this since the "everyone is a winner" mindset didn't exist in the 1950s or early 60s, and I doubt they would have agreed with that approach. Frankly, my time on active duty in the Army taught me, rather harshly, that I wasn't very special!

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  4. Hi Bob! I agree that it is good for us all to learn that failure doesn't mean we are personally failing. But I'm not sure that young people are the only ones to need the lesson. I know quite a few other bloggers who seem consistently worried about perfection in their writing and their lives. Not every retiree has mastered the lesson either because I so many who never push themselves beyond their comfort zones. Sure it's more "comfortable" to do what we've always done, but stretching ourselves to learn and try new things is really important to me. In fact, I think we could ask, if we aren't failing now and then, are we growing at all? Continual learning is really important to me and I do my best to stretch in my writing and in my world on a regular basis. Maybe failing spectacularly is a really good thing! Thanks for the thoughts. ~Kathy

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    1. I couldn't agree more, Kathy. I have a post coming up in a few weeks that uses a quote from famous philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, to make that point quite clearly.

      BTW, I did add your blog to the sidebar. something I meant to do a few weeks ago!

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    2. Thanks Bob! You know that is always appreciated. I'm enjoying your blog and also your helpful recommendations to other blogs. It's so great to read so many perspectives! ~Kathy

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  5. You can't see me right now but, I'm giving you a standing ovation. I could not agree more. The helicopter parents have created a new monster in their own children. Failure is not the end of the world, let alone a B or a C grade. The idea of giving out 'participation' awards makes me crazy! But, then a lot of people know I am crazy. ;)
    b

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    1. Yeah, but crazy in a good way!

      Maybe there is a post you or I should write about helicopter parents and grandparents. The potential for damage to a child is quite substantial.

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    2. I touched on it once on my blog and it got mixed reactions but, it might be worth revisiting.
      b

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  6. Great minds think alike! My recent blog post was titled "Failing Better." We are in sync!

    When one of my daughters was goofing off in one of her high school classes, I finally called the teacher and asked, "What does it take to fail in your class? My daughter is skipping your class and not doing her homework. What will she learn if you pass her? How am I supposed to teach her accountability? Fail her!" The teacher was so surprised! But she did fail her. That was a much more important lesson than getting a passing grade that she didn't earn.

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    1. Tough love! That stance took real foresight on your part. You could see the future for her if she was allowed to skate through things she didn't like. I am surprised the teacher agreed, but that was the right thing to do.

      Remind me never to cross you. Ha!

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    2. I think she was nervous about it. I promised her I would back her up with the principal.

      As for crossing me--you have been very smart not to! Ha!

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  7. I think the other part of learning to fail is that those who are afraid to fail never take any risks, which dooms them to mediocrity. Without risking failure, we can never become our best selves or do our best work. The year before I retired, I had a student in my office at the end of her senior year in tears because her B+ in my course meant that she would only graduate magna cum laude instead of summa cum laude. When I told her it wouldn't matter to her in 10 years,she was furious. I should have talked to her instead about the ways that some of our most important learning happens when we don't do as well as we would have liked. -Jean

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    1. All the money people spend on fancy colleges and racking up awards....never once was I asked for anything other than what university I graduated from and in what year. You told the student the truth though she wasn't prepared to hear it. At that stage in her life I doubt a "softer" response on your part would have made any difference in her reaction. She wasn't mature enough to process what you were telling her. Most of us in our young 20's aren't.

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  8. After I retired from teaching at a university, I agreed to stay on part-time to help with academic advising. I made it a few years and then finally had to quit, in large part because of entitled students and their "helicopter parents." I would receive calls from an angry mom or dad, telling me that "professor X is jeopardizing my child's chances for medical school admission because he/she "gave them" a B grade.

    We have largely been fortunate in this country (reading any newspaper about the plight of others in the world will prove it to you). I think many have been shielded from the "tragedy of life." Sometimes things go wrong, and most people seemingly do not have the "grit" necessary to push through adversity and carry on. Some do, and they are heroic role models.

    In my final months on the job, I had an enlarged version of this cartoon on my office door:

    http://www.savagechickens.com/tag/accountability

    It accurately represented too many of my office appointments. Sigh......

    Rick in Oregon

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    1. I find it interesting that someone earns an A but is given a B. Your cartoon accurately describes this world view.

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    2. Actually, they earned a B but wanted an A.

      Rick in Oregon

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    3. Yes, I left out the quotation marks to make that statement clear. People tend to think that they "earn" an A, but when they get a B or C, that was "given" to them. No, the B or C what what they "earned" in that case.

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  9. All good points and I esp. appreciate stepintofuture's remark pointing out that if you haven't failed it just means you haven't taken enough risks.

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    1. If you haven't failed, you just haven't tried hard enough at life...you are taking the easy path.

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  10. This "never failing" is not new to the last few generations. When I was a young engineer in the 1970s I was told by my boss "We want you to take risks, just never fail". That goes against the very definition of risk. I didn't say anything but I should have. That very conservative company went through some drastic divestiture in 1983 and were show what the "real" world was about.

    I've known my share of failure and challenges in my life but looking back looking back could have used some more to push me out of my comfort zone sooner...

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    1. "Take risks but don't fail"" Definitely a mixed message that is counter-productive.

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  11. I find myself wondering if the intolerance for failure these days rises from how much greater the stakes are. We've lost the jobs people used to be able to get if their grades weren't top-notch. Competition is fiercer for fewer slots.

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  12. I like the point you make: "The mark of a life well lived is in how we respond to disappointment and failure." This bit of wisdom takes a lifetime to learn. It means learning to recognize that a failure presents an opportunity to learn or do things differently, or to correct a misconception or behaviour. Rather than seeing failure as a disaster or indicator of personal inadequacy, and flipping out about it, a mature person learns to respond with grace and dignity and without denigrating themself or others. The failure itself is not the defining indicator of one's personal qualities, but rather it is their response to disappointment and personal failure.

    Jude

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    1. Can you imagine how "safe" a life must be if there are never any consequential failings? What we learn from a failure is what often sets up a success.

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