Why We Should Teach Kids About Failure
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When Sara Blakely was growing up in the 70s and 80s, every night at dinner, her father would ask her, "What have you failed at today?"
This nightly ritual was invaluable in teaching Blakely to view failure as a tool for discovery -- a way of figuring out new skills that would make her more competent, more insightful and more powerful. Without this mindset, perhaps Blakely would have been discouraged when she scored poorly on the LSAT, ruling out her dream of having a successful law career. Instead, Blakely went out and developed Spanx, one of the world's fastest-growing apparel brands. She is one of the first self-made female billionaires in the U.S.
The ability to redefine failure as an opportunity to learn is a critical skill for any effective entrepreneur, and it is best to learn early. While not every child will grow up to be the next Sara Blakely, children who become comfortable with failure at a young age will have an easier time harnessing this failure for success throughout their lives.
In order to amass the billions of failures needed to become a billionaire, it's critical to start failing young. One story of successful failure from my nonprofit, VentureLab, comes to mind in particular. Each session of a VentureLab class or camp, students divide into groups to develop, create and present a product of their choosing, based on a problem in their lives they'd like to solve.
One young student, named Olivia, had a problem that involved her dog. She noticed that his paws would get painfully burned when he walked on the blacktop in the blazing Texas sun. Ultimately, Olivia's pitch was not compelling enough to entice the rest of her team, and they ended up choosing a different problem. But, Olivia was not discouraged. She enrolled in the next camp session, so she could work on her idea.
The following session, Olivia passionately convinced her teammates the urgency of her problem. The enthusiasm of this calm, reserved girl ignited a drive to solve the problem for the dogs of San Antonio. She and her teammates went on to design, make and sell little padded boots to protect dogs' feet -- a new product dreamed up by a team of girls to better the lives of their pets. None of this would've been possible had Olivia merely given up after her initial failure.
What you can do to encourage failure
Getting your children comfortable with the idea of failure can be as easy as teaching them that failing can be fun. At VentureLab, our staff recognizes that it is up to us to get the failure ball running. This is why we intentionally create situations in which our students will fail. When these moments occur, they are not somber occasions. Rather, they are cause for celebration. Whether we laugh until we cry or spray the team with carbonated water, we make sure everyone is having a great time.
This attitude can easily be brought home. Make playtime into curiosity time and encourage your kids to pursue experiments that interest them -- especially those that are destined to fail. When this inevitable failure occurs, enthusiastically celebrate it yourself, so that your children will follow your example. After all, there is no one they look up to more than you.
Continue to enforce this mentality as your children become teenagers. Too often, when students struggle in math or science -- particularly if the students are female -- they are told that perhaps that subject isn't for them and allowed to opt out. If your high schooler fails an algebra test, rather than allow her to take an easier subject, help her work through her difficulties. If you're knowledgeable on the subject, go over the test with her. Suggest that she find time to speak one-on-one with her teacher or seek help from a peer tutor. If you're able, perhaps hire an after-school tutor to work with her on the units with which she's struggling. Although she may grow frustrated at times, she'll thank you when her superior work ethic and problem-solving skills lead her to a fruitful career in a field about which she is passionate.
If we can teach our children to be comfortable with and learn from failure, we will create a generation whose success is determined by their own grit and determination, rather than luck or circumstance.