Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Redefining Failure

goal setting fro children

I’ve been reading a lot about Growth Mindset theory lately, and why it so important to success in both children and adults.  I’ll post more about that later, but it got me thinking about failure.  Being able to learn from failure, take what you learn and adapt it to a the ‘next time” or a new situation is a critical component of a growth mindset. 

The subject of failure alone is enough to write a plethora of books on, so I won’t tackle it here.  Rather just one aspect of it.  

The flip side of failure is success or the attainment of a goal.  The attainment of said goal means you are successful or you are not.  If you are not successful in reaching your goal, then you feel like you are not a success or as my 4th grader would say, “I feel like a loser.”  This is heartbreaking to hear from your child.  Their heartbreak is our heartbreak, and we also don’t want them to look like a loser, so we do our best to work it so they avoid feeling this way.  We prepare the road for our child instead of preparing our child for the road.  

The problem is if you make life too easy for your child, you basically confirm to them that they can’t handle life very well, and that they do lack the skills needed to be successful, and then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The ability to overcome obstacles, to hang in there with passion and perseverance for long term goals is the number one predictor of success according to studies conducted by Angela Lee Duckworth (and others) a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies intangibles like grit and self-control to see how they might predict academic and professional success.  I’ll even extrapolate here and say, it probably also is a predictor of relationship success as well. If you are interested in learning more about “Grit”:

On the other hand, if the obstacles are too large, and the failure so huge, it can become crushing, and your child gives up before they even get started.  So what’s the compromise here? How do you have both? How do you get some success to give someone momentum, so they can tackle the first obstacles, and absorb the failures from a place of learning, not from “loserville"?  

99% of the time I have felt unsuccessful as an adult, it was because I was allowing someone’s else’s yardstick to measure my success. Alain de Botton has a wonderful Ted Talk (I’ve been on a Ted Talk binge lately) called “A Kinder, Gentler, Philosophy of Success” He is very amusing and very relevant. I highly recommend this 10 minute talk.  He breaks down why in our culture suffer from career crisis, and worry so much about being successful.  It’s about how we define success and he has some solid advice of what to do about it to find relief.  Great for adults, however, I would like to help my children avoid becoming the basket case I am, and have a healthier view of failure and success. After all, think of all the 10 minute Ted Talks they could avoid, and being doing something much more useful with their time.  Like finding a cure for cancer or something.  His Ted Talk is here:

I believe the answer is in goal setting, the defining of success.  Here is a bold, hands off approach...Let your child set the goal or define what success is to him or her, not your version of success (or anyone else’s).  I would like to say I came up with this brilliant idea on my own, especially since my business is in goal setting and performance achievement/ improvement, but I didn’t.  I never thought to apply it to my kids, until my son went to his first Tae Kwon Do Tournament.  

First he had a tiny anxiety attack about even entering the event.  He stayed in the lobby, not speaking or making eye contact, or moving for 20 minutes.  Finally, we convince him to walk up to the counter to sign in (ok, we not so gently pushed him until he was at the counter).  We spent another 10 minutes in the lobby before we finally entered the gymnasium.  There were hundreds of competitors and their families there.  It was loud, confusing and chaotic.  Everything that makes him anxious.  He finally gets sorted into his group.  He participated in three events.  He won nothing. Absolutely nothing.  My husband and I began to panic a little. What’s the ride home going to be like?  Is he going to cry? Will he quit?  He loves TKD.  I hope he doesn’t quit. Man, I wish everyone got a trophy (after I just said I hate when everyone gets a trophy, but that was before my kid was the loser.). My husband started talking about what he was going to have to say to him to “cheer” him up, to put this into perspective, to keep him going, and then he went to talk to his instructor to see what he would suggest to help down play this catastrophe so he doesn’t quit. While he’s doing that, I paste my cheerful face on and find my son.  

I was at a loss for words as to what to say to him, so I asked him what he thought about the tournament.  He turns to me and says, “I’m just glad I made it through the lobby door.”  

“What?” I say, perplexed.  “Was that your goal today?” I want to add "not to win a medal?”, but I did’t because I realized that we were not on the same page as to what success was here in this situation.  I had defined it for him in my head.  My version of success for him.

He said, “Yes, I just wanted to make it out of the lobby, and do my events.”  

Curious, I say, "Okay, what’s your goal for next time?" (would there be a next time?) 

He says, "to win at least one medal in one event”.  

"How are you going to do that?” I ask. 

"Keep practicing and going to class, maybe add one more class during the week.”  I am astonished he even had a plan.

By now, my husband comes back with a speech planned, but I quickly shake my head “no,” because apparently, it’s not necessary.  
My son had his version of success.  He identified obstacles to overcome, and he went into a situation knowing he might “fail” (i.e. not win).  He framed the “failure” as necessary to learning. Thank goodness, I heard him out before I “educated” him on how he failed, and made him feel like a loser (unintentionally of course).  
Is it a big deal for some kids to walk into a tournament?  No, being on display in front of large crowds isn’t a fear everyone has to overcome, but for him, it was a major big deal.  I forgot that.  Since then we have let him set the pace whenever he is going after something important to him, and try to play the part of sounding board and supporter.  Five years later, he is a second degree blackbelt, and still working toward achieving more in this sport. He has shown himself that he has “grit”.  That he can stick with something over the long term, but only because he defined SMART goals for himself.  Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time Based.  He has been able to apply that to school as well. When he isn’t getting something, I ask him, "what do you think you need to do to be successful here? How can I help?"

So, if you want your kids to stick to something, to show some “grit”, put them in the driver's seat. Let them define what success is, and conversely define what failure is.  They might surprise you.   

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