All too soon, it's that time of year again. Tomorrow, children go back to school across the country. You've done everything you can to prepare them: bought running shoes and pens and Thermos bottles that, despite your best intentions, will soon contain nothing but instant ramen noodles.
Most parents spend this week in an anxious fug, wondering if they've done enough to prepare their kids for the year ahead, worrying about unseen dangers, because who wants to see their child stumble? But what if a little stumbling isn't so bad? Perhaps the best thing we can do is teach them how to fail.
Not how to be failures, but how to fail, sometimes, and treat the experience as a bump to be avoided rather than a precipice that leads to ruin. The rest of the world, outside education, has embraced failure as a growth strategy with the same enthusiasm it once embraced the concepts of "excellence" and "innovation."
One of the mantras of Silicon Valley and other start-up-intensive areas is "fail fast, move on." (This is probably also a useful survival strategy, considering that 80 per cent of new businesses are destined for the scrap heap.)
If you listen to successful entrepreneurs, their early disasters are not dismissed as shameful, but embraced as a vital steps to the top. The British inventor James Dyson was recently quoted in a Globe and Mail story about the joy he found in one of his company's more useless product lines: "Making this washing machine was the most wonderful educative failure. Success is not always as enjoyable as you might think. When something's a success, the results are clear. Failure is an enigma. You worry about it, and it teaches you something."
There is even a burgeoning industry in "enlightened failure" – that is, sharing and learning from one's screw-ups. FailCon is a global conference devoted to sharing such missteps, and Toronto's Fail Forward helps organizations learn from their mistakes, based on the idea that "intolerance of failure drives our learning underground."
This is not something you see on the curriculum of most schools, however, where failure is still a black mark, as any kid who has hidden an F under a rock rather than show it to his parents can tell you. When London's high-performing Wimbledon High School implemented "Failure Week" as a way of assuring kids that a D isn't the end of the world, the concept was so novel it made international headlines. As the head teacher told her students, "It is better to lead a life replete with disappointment than one where you constantly wonder, 'If only.' "
The current safety-first model needs to be reversed, as Megan McArdle writes in her recent book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success: "Instead of protecting kids from failure, teachers would encourage them to face it, early and often, on sports teams, in the classroom and in the lab. They'd help kids overcome their natural fear of failure, because failure is often the best – and sometimes the only – way to learn." Acknowledging mistakes rather than trying to hide them is one tool, she writes. Not assigning blame is another.
This is not easily accomplished in a world of standardized tests, helicopter parents and nail-biting college admission standards. As it is, though, many students arrive at university paralyzed with anxiety, having never learned to absorb disappointment and move on.
You know there's a problem when Stanford University, one of the most elite schools in the United States, launches a "Resilience Project" to teach young adults something they should have learned much earlier: that a few setbacks won't kill you, but might actually help in the long run.
On the school's website, faculty members talk about the trials they've faced and overcome, from poverty to repeated rejection. The best of them comes from the great short-story writer Tobias Wolff, who teaches English literature. A high-school dropout who entered the army at 18, Prof. Wolff worried that his life was a failure, that he'd never make anything of himself. He compares his "dismal" early life to the horrible early drafts of his stories, which he improves incrementally with hard work: "If you want to call them failures, call them that. I like to call them drafts. Our life is a draft. It's constantly in revision. We can make it better, we can maybe even make it close to something beautiful if we allow ourselves the room to do it."
Now those are words to study.