‘Failure Is Good For You’- says who?

Is it time we debunked the myth that failure is ‘good’ for kids and realised that the sting of failure can maybe last longer than we wish to think? That perhaps it is not so ‘character building’ after all?

For some time now there’s been widespread belief that failure is in fact good for us, and particularly for kids. For decades a lot of material has circulated highlighting the benefits of failing early on in life, and how this sets us up better for the inevitable trials of life than success does. But how good can failure really be for young people, and have scientists overlooked the fact that the burn of failure can last a lifetime?

Whether it’s Elizabeth Day’s ‘How to Fail’ podcast that’s become a hit with people worldwide, John Maxwell’s 2000 novel ‘Failing Forward’, or any of the other multitude of publications about why failure is good for us, I’m sure you’ve been exposed to this kind of material. The common theory reproduced in these pieces time and time again is that failure teaches us to become more resilient, know ourselves better and ultimately succeed. Through failure, the theory goes, humans become stronger and more innovative. We’re hard-wired to do everything in our power to avoid that feeling of failure again, and therefore must find new ways to achieve what we want.

Speeches on the subject often bring up the likes of Bill Gates, the now world-famous co-founder of Microsoft, who ‘failed’ at a young age when he had to drop out of Harvard. Gates himself is a big supporter of the idea that we should re-evaluate the way we view failure, contending it can indeed be good for us, at least if we learn to create success from it.

But what happens when we don’t learn to harness our failures and convert them into ideas for starting multi billion dollar businesses as Gates did? And is it really all down to his failure that he was able to go on to succeed so exponentially? Or were there other factors, at play in his life, perhaps most obviously his acute intelligence and pro-active and supportive parents. His secondary school bought the first ever computer for the school’s after school computer club, about 50 years ago now (1) and allowed Gates and fellow students to use it freely. Gates ‘failing’ was not really failing at all (nice try Bill.)

So how is it for the rest of us? I don’t know about you, but there are still failures from my childhood that bother me today and for a while put me off certain things. A particularly poignant memory for me is failing to get into my chosen school at the age of 11. At the time, I pretended it didn’t matter at all and that I wanted to go to a different school anyway, but did this failure combined with my subsequent ashamed pretence really benefit me in the long run? I’d argue not. For years, the prospect of an academic interview filled me with terror, regardless of lessons learned from the first ‘miss’, and this no doubt did not help my performance at such interviews.

Studies show that when children experience failure, they often dodge doing that activity again in order to avoid that feeling. But is avoidance really success? Surely it would be more beneficial for young people to try again and prove to themselves that the next time they might perform better, rather than forming an image of themselves early on as being ‘bad’ at an activity or subject.

Obviously, learning to deal with failure graciously is an important lesson in life, and one we must all learn as failure on some level is inevitable. However, the idea that failure is ‘good’ for young people and even incremental to their later success should be re-examined.

An interesting starting point is behavioural author Alfie Kohn’s recent research into failure. The closing sentences of his blog on failure certainly ring true with me: ‘In short, there’s reason to doubt the popular claim that kids have too little experience with failure. Or that more such experience would be good for them.’

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