Why failure can be the best thing for you

First of all, apologies for the long delay between blog posts.  I'd been hoping to write every week, but it turns out that blogging is more challenging for me than I anticipated.  Where it feels natural and easy for me to draw people out and explore their thoughts, it's much harder for me to monologue to unseen readers about my own thoughts.  I'm so used to functioning in relationship at this point that just talking with no response feels very, very odd.  

 That said, I just read two articles back to back that dovetailed so beautifully with what I've been thinking about lately that I can't help but jot down my thoughts.  One of the articles was about the life of Nelson Mandela, the other about increased rates of depression in millenials.  While the topics seem unrelated, I was struck in reading them to see a crucial element that came up in both: the importance of resilience to happiness and success. 

Adam Roberts' article describes Mandela as "flawed" and says that we should "pay as much attention to his slip-ups as to his achievements." The author isn't highlighting Mandela's mistakes in order to diminish his legacy, but to point out how remarkable it is for such a great leader to admit to mistakes at all.  He says that Mandela's "achievements are the greater because he himself admitted to errors... He was more likely to learn from mistakes than the haughty sort of leader who refuses to accept that he made any."

This seems like a hugely important point to me because in my conversations with high-achieving college students, in particular, I'm struck over and over again by how difficult it is for them to cope with even the most minor failures.  I find that these kids are so accustomed to aligning their personal identity with achievement and success that any kind of failure threatens their very sense of self.  Who am I if not a winner?  A loser?  In this model Mandela represents a way out: success comes from honest assessment of your actions and revisions of your thinking, not from out-of-the-gate perfection.  His resilience in the face of obstacles allowed him to be constantly improving as a result of challenge, rather than being marked forever by his shortcomings.

In her article about increased depression among millenials, Brooke Donatone argues that helicopter parenting has led to a generation of young people who are dependent, emotionally fragile, and unable to cope with normal life stressors like breakups and bad grades.  This aligns exactly with what I've seen in my work.  It seems so clear that one of the key factors of becoming a successful adult is having the coping skills and self-soothing skills to overcome obstacles rather than crumbling in the face of them.  Children who don't face failure don't build the resilience skills that will allow them to overcome failure; instead they become utterly paralyzed by the fear of failure, all the more so because it is also a fear of the unknown.

One tactic that I've found useful is helping these kids to reframe their sense of self a little bit.  For a kid who thinks of herself as 'someone who succeeds' it can be helpful to think about the times when she either didn't succeed at first or got through by the skin of her teeth, then focus on how she recovered or came back from behind.  Augmenting kids' sense of themselves as 'someone who succeeds' with a sense of themselves as 'someone who can overcome anything' or 'someone who doesn't give up' begins to build in an awareness that challenge and failure are not aberrations but expectations, and that rather than undermining their sense of self those moments can give them an opportunity to prove exactly who they are.

This is where Mandela is a great guide: to be truly great you need an internal framework that allows you to take in difficult feedback and use it to make yourself stronger rather than crumble under the trauma of making a mistake.  This is part of why I advocate for letting your seventh grader get detention or fail a class; the older your child gets the more dramatic the consequences can become and the harder it will be for your child to make those consequences into productive experiences if they don't have any practice at learning from their mistakes.

Fear of failure can paralyze bright, competent, talented people if failure entails some loss of self.  But if you build a sense of self around your response to failure, then challenges become opportunities to prove how resilient you really are.  Experiencing failure can show you that there's nothing there to fear, that if you can learn from it failure will only make you stronger, smarter, and more prepared for anything that lies ahead.