Failure ain’t what it used to be. Or, at least, failure is understood differently today, as we examine more closely how much it actually helps us in the long run. When we allow failure and setbacks to be learning experiences and jumping off points for the development of resilience and grit, our lives transform. We refine our character all the more, but like a fine work of art that benefits from revision and reframing. Nowhere is such an experience in growth more valuable and applicable than education.
Several years ago, a man named (fittingly) Paul Tough, published the excellent book How Children Succeed, which explains in great detail that the process of trying something difficult and not coming up smelling like roses actually provides an excellent opportunity to grow - not only for students, but as individuals.
Tough explains, in a nutshell, that although cognitive ability and IQ might still be factors in one’s ability to succeed in education, character and non-cognitive skills can weigh just as heavily on a student’s ability to learn and thrive and that such development of character often comes through the practice of persistence in the face of foundering. You can watch Tough here give an excellent talk on his research and developments and applied practice in schools today.
Too much emphasis today is on the end goal or the good-enough grade rather than the process of challenging learning. Too much emphasis is on the over-protection of children and young adults from adversity and potential harm rather than the encouragement to face challenges with curiosity and gusto.
Though such intentions like focusing on grades and protecting young ones from adversity are well-meaning, the results are plain, as Tough continuously illustrates in his book, as well as the following article on Edutopia explains: children and adolescents who do not go through necessary trial and error experiences, and yes, even outright failure, are less equipped to handle higher education and the eventual real world. Not only that, but they are missing out on opportunities to develop a character rounded out with strength, resolve, perseverance, and courage.
Grit is a term Tough uses regularly throughout his book, which can also be defined as pluck, nerve, fortitude, or strength of character. The idea of grit being applied in education was first coined by Angela Duckworth in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It is an invaluable trait to possess, and both Tough and Duckworth argue that it often develops most strongly in students who are willing to go for sometimes overwhelming challenges without too much fear of failing and the subsequent willingness to learn from that failure. You can check out if you have the five most common characteristics of grit here.
We have to look at what our culture means by the term “failure.” Is it simply not succeeding in the long run? No. A better perspective on failure might be understanding that mistakes are inevitable and that perfectionism stifles growth. Failure is not necessarily earning a failing grade on a report card; it might be not making the basketball team one year or getting a lower than expected mark on a science project or dealing with the consequences of putting off studying for an entire semester. It could also mean struggling early on in an extra difficult class before one decides they need extra help or more time spent in the library. These little learning experiences are what help individuals develop grit and understand that a willingness to keep trying, learning, studying, practicing, even in the face of “failure,” is a worthwhile human attribute.
If you are a parent, you might want to allow your children to take a few bigger risks now and then; let them risk making a handful of hefty mistakes. Let them risk a bad grade or a cut from the sports team or a last place contestant in a competition. Or, if a student yourself, why not go out on a limb and take that more challenging class or extra curricular activity you know nothing about and see what happens? You might just develop extra grit in the aftermath and become an overall more successful individual down the road. A good way of looking at it is thinking about what type of character you aim to possess rather than simply making the grade or avoiding imperfections. As Tough explains, “what matters…is [that we] develop persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, and self-confidence.”
Go for it!
About the Author
Stephanie Ingraham is a former English teacher turned writer and tutor with a BA in English from UCLA and a Masters in Education from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. She is deeply passionate about education, psychology, child and adolescent development, literature, and writing. She believes the education world can benefit greatly from the meditation world - mindfulness and self-compassion are key! In her free time she loves reading and writing, music, baking, yoga, dance, animals, and exploring new cities. She currently lives in Chicago, Illinois.