Fail Thee Well

09/21/2011 09:13 am ET | Updated Nov 20, 2011
  • Barbara & Shannon Kelley Speakers; Coauthors, "Undecided: How To Ditch The Endless Quest For Perfect and Find The Career--and Life--That's Right For You"

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.

It's a bit like the kid who eats the occasional fistful of dirt, versus the one whose every move is greeted with an anti-bacterial wipe. Sure, one will get dirty (and perhaps cooties) -- but, long term, whose immune system is going to be stronger?

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.

You look at it that way, and it seems we've all been set up for failure! But might that be a good thing -- if only we could figure out how to fail well? Tom Brunzell, Dean of Students at Kipp Infinity School in the Bronx, says of the "character conversations" that have infiltrated all aspects of the curriculum:

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."

It's tough not to let our ego get in the way (even when we know there are worse things than messing up or being wrong), but when we succumb to that knee-jerk defensiveness (a "baby attack," in KIPP school parlance), we deprive ourselves real growth. What if we could just tell our ego to chill, and take a minute to observe: What can this situation teach me about the areas where I have a little room for improvement? What can I do better next time? (And then, the fun part: Holy crap! Imagine how successful I could be if I could figure out a way to get better at the things I'm not as good at yet!)

The thing is, blowing it every once in a while is inevitable: We might as well do it well.