Failing to Succeed

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Let’s face it, we all want our children to work hard, learn, and succeed. What’s wrong
with that? Well, nothing. But by nudging our children towards success and praising them for their every achievement — making the team, acing the test, getting an A on the paper — we undermine a necessary prerequisite for success. Failure.

Gatorade recently released a fantastic commercial, entitled   “The Secret to Victory” featuring some of the most dominant, most successful superstar athletes disclosing the fuel for their success. In answer to the question, “You want to know the secret to victory?” Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, says “Go 3 and 13 your rookie season.” Eli Manning, two time Superbowl MVP, says “Lead the league in interceptions.” Serena Williams, the most dominant women’s tennis player of all time and holder of 39 Grand Slam titles, says “Be on the wrong side of the biggest upset of your sport.”

The ad closes with this: “You want to know the secret to victory? Defeat.”

This is what we need to teach our children. First, everyone fails at some point Even the best in the world have faced significant challenges, defeats, and disappointments. Second, failure is an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to develop into a smarter, stronger, more resilient person. Third, failure is a part of life. Not just when you’re young, but throughout life.

Need more proof? Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, his own company. Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Marilyn Monroe was told by modeling agencies that she should become a secretary. Steven Spielberg was rejected from USC School of Theater, Film and Television…three times! Despite their failures, and likely because of them, they rebounded, persevered, and continued to work hard and achieve their goals.

Recognizing the importance of failure, Smith College has launched an initiative called, “Failing Well” which was featured in a recent New York Times  article. In this course that views failure is seen as a life skill, students and professors are encouraged to share their stories of personal failure.  In fact, students in the class are given a certificate that reads, “You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.”

Michael Jordan, widely accepted as the greatest basketball player of all time and who was cut from his high school basketball team, once said:

“I have missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I have missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Of course, we should celebrate our children’s successes. And our own, for that matter. But perhaps we should approach failure not as the opposite of success, but as a necessary step to achieving it.