Go Ahead, Let Your Kids Fail

If we want a society that dreams new things and then makes them happen, why do we teach the next generation to do the exact opposite?

I'm on the road this week, giving talks on my new book about learning to fail better: that is, first, to give ourselves the permission to take on challenges where we might very well fail; second, to pick ourselves up as quickly as possible and move on when things don't work out. This is, I argue, vital on a personal level, as well as vital for the economy, because that's where innovation and growth come from.

The other day, after one of my talks, a 10th-grade girl came up and shyly asked if I had a minute. I always have a minute to talk to shy high school sophomores, having been one myself.

And this is what she asked me:

"I understand what you're saying about trying new things, and hard things, but I'm in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?"

I was floored. All I could think as I talked to this poor girl is "America, you're doing it wrong."

I was 15 in 10th grade. If you can't try something new in 10th grade, when can you? If you can't afford to risk anything less than perfection at the age of 15, then for heaven's sake, when is going to be the right time? When you're ready to splash out on an edgy assisted-living facility?

Now is when this kid should be learning to dream big dreams and dare greatly. Now is when she should be making mistakes and figuring out how to recover from them. Instead, we're telling one of our best and brightest to focus all her talent on coloring within the lines. This is not the first time I've heard this from kids and teachers and parents. But I've never heard it phrased quite so starkly.

Let me enumerate all the ways that this is a bad idea:

  • She is spending her high school years in terror of making the slightest mistake. Even if that was necessary to success -- and it's not -- surely she'll have plenty of time later to agonize about putting a foot out of place. Why not let her wait until she's, I dunno, 20?
  • At the time in her life when failure should have the lowest cost, she should be learning to try things that are great, and maybe a little crazy. And, also, learning how to identify when your great, crazy idea isn't working so well. And to move on after the occasional embarrassing flop. Apparently, she can't afford to do any of that, because it might jeopardize her perfect grade-point average.
  • The subjects that she is most likely to avoid are the ones she's unfamiliar with -- and the ones that are especially difficult. So we're taking insanely bright, hardworking kids and discouraging them from trying things that they might be great at, because what if they got a B instead of an A?
  • We are drilling into their heads that success consists of jumping through a series of hoops to please authority. Of course, this is a valuable skill that everyone needs to learn, because hey, that's part of life. But it is far from the only skill, and it is certainly not the most valuable one we could teach.
  • We are also teaching her that success is doing what comes easiest, which is the opposite of true.
  • The longer this kid goes without failing, the more dreadful it will come to seem. When you've never coped with failure, it often comes to seem imperative that you arrange your life so that it never happens. Since that's not actually possible, you spend a lot of time trying to arrange away the inevitable.
  • And when the inevitable comes, you are in no way prepared to handle it. I watched a lot of MBAs and tech wizards melt down after 2001 because they had done everything they were supposed to and how could they possibly be out of a job? From the way we carried on (and I include myself), you would have thought the law of gravity had been repealed.

America needs more bright, hardworking kids taking on challenging academic work. But it does not need them to learn that success is a formula -- or a zero-sum game in which the race goes to the safest. In fact, that's exactly the opposite of what we need -- and more important, it's the opposite of what those kids need.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the pressure this kid is under. I too agonized about getting into a good college -- and wept when I didn't get into my first choice. But no one told me at the age of 15 that I'd better focus all my energies on being absolutely perfect. (And I sure wasn't!) I was talking about this with my father the other day, and he said that was a deliberate choice my parents made. "If you can't screw up in high school," he said, "it's hard to think of a better time."

But we have become crazy on the subject of college. Now, more than ever, we view a college degree as an absolute prerequisite for a minimally decent life. And if we're in the upper middle class, it has to be a degree from an elite school. Kids who a generation or two ago would have gone to a local college, or the state university, are now applying to Harvard University. And since the number of slots at those elite colleges has barely budged, parents are essentially trying to push an ever-larger number of kids through a medium-sized funnel.

To keep their kids from falling off the side, they're pushing them harder than ever -- micromanaging their lives, orchestrating things so that their children have as little opportunity as possible to go astray. It's totally understandable. But it's bad for the kids, bad for the parents, and bad for the nation.

(The flip side, of course, is even worse: As getting into college becomes a team sport, poor kids are becoming like Nadia Comaneci. They need to hit everything just right, make a perfect 10, or they'll never get the gold. One mistake will knock them clear out of the running, because there's no one around to make sure they get back on track.)

This is insane. It's insane because everyone hates it -- parents, kids, even college admissions officers. It's insane because it is not producing better citizens, or more productive citizens, or happier citizens. Rather the opposite, in fact.

It's insane because there is no formula.

One of my favorite books is "Popular Crime," by the great Bill James. And this is one of my favorite passages:

First of all, as I see it, no one has any ability whatsoever to figure out what is going to be important to people. I look back on my own life. When I was in high school I had two habits that greatly irritated my teachers; actually, many more than two, but let's focus. One was writing funny notes to my classmates, trying to make them crack up in the middle of class. The other was spending hours of valuable study time making mystifying totals from the agate type in the sports pages. I was called on the carpet any number of times and told to stop doing this stuff and pay more attention to What Was Really Important.

As I look back on those years, the two most useful things that I was doing, in terms of preparing me for my career, were 1) Writing humorous notes to my classmates, and 2) Making mystifying totals from the agate type in the sports pages. By writing amusing if vulgar notes to my classmates, I was learning to write -- not learning to write in a way that would please English teachers, but learning to write in a way that would hold the interest of people who had no reason to read the note, other than the expectation that they would enjoy reading it. That's much, much closer to writing books than writing insipid research papers to please bored English teachers. The adults in charge thought they knew what was important, but in retrospect they were just completely wrong.

At the personal level, most of us could attest to this -- you never know what will end up being important, but it's probably not what you think. And at the economy level, this is basically a pithy summation of what economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed "creative destruction": the process by which old ideas, and companies, and even markets are destroyed in order that something previously undreamt-of can replace them.

Do we want a society that dreams new things and then makes them happen? I hear that we do, every time I hear a teacher, or a politician, give a speech. So why are we trying so hard to teach the next generation to do the exact opposite?

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