What if the surest indicator of your future success -- of living a happy, meaningful, and productive life -- is how good you are at failing?
Brace yourselves, perfectionists, because the evidence is mounting: In order to fly, you've first got to fail. And (worse!) how well you fail may be one of the biggest predictors of success. Bigger even than, say, IQ.
Paul Tough's recent piece in the New York Times, entitled "The Character Test: Why our kids' success -- and happiness -- may depend less on perfect performance than on learning how to deal with failure," looks at character-development programs in two schools -- one school affluent, one not. Both programs were inspired by the character strengths inventory developed by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson -- which seem to show that the kids who move through failures with a mindset of looking at them as learning experiences are much more equipped for success in life. Of course, in order to move through a failure, they have to be allowed to fail, an issue about which Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School -- one of NYC's most prestigious private schools -- is worried:
People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SATs, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they're doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, I think they're going to be screwed, to be honest. I don't think they've grown the capacities to handle that.
When it comes to failure, the trick is being able to look at it objectively -- easier said than done, when you're in the midst of being dressed down in the boardroom or rejected in the bedroom. And for women, as we explore in Undecided, there are even more complications: Often we're carrying the weight of some great expectations -- whether our own, or those of our (real and proverbial) mothers who never had the opportunity we do -- born of the well-intentioned message that we can do anything! (And that we're so lucky that we can do anything.) And the kicker: we're doing it blind! After all, as Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote,
We don't have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map.
what's going on ... isn't academic instruction at all, or even disciple, it's therapy. Specifically, it's a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy, the very practical, nuts-and-bolts psychological technique that provides the theoretical underpinning for the whole positive psychology field. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, involves using the conscious mind to understand and overcome unconscious fears and self-destructive habits, using techniques like "self-talk" -- putting an immediate crisis in perspective by reminding you of the larger context ... "I mean, it's middle school, the worst years of their lives. But the kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: 'I can rise above this little situation. I'm OK. Tomorrow is a new day."
The thing is, blowing it every once in a while is inevitable: We might as well do it well.
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