If we want our children to succeed, we must let them fail
"All political lives … end in failure," said the egregious British politician Enoch Powell, a proposition amply corroborated by the implosion of his career. Scholars are vulnerable to a similar fate. To paraphrase anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, academics can be sure of two things: someday they will all be dead, and someday they will all be proven wrong. (Sahlins' tip for a successful scholarly career—make sure the first precedes the second.)
Even superstars fail. In a famous Nike advertisement, basketball legend Michael Jordan confessed to missing more than 9,000 shots and losing almost 300 basketball games in his career. "Twenty-six times," he says, "I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot—and missed. I've failed over and over again in my life." Then, after a pause, he delivers the line that attracted seven million people to view his advertisement on YouTube: "And that is why I succeed."
Jordan's message is inspiring, but it's also worrying. If failure is essential to success, then what are the prospects for our current crop of graduates? The overwhelming majority have never experienced failure. They have grown up in an age when no pupil repeats a year, a mark of 50% is good enough to pass, and the majority of university students graduate with high grade-point averages and first or second-class honours. What happens when graduates move out of the academic environment, where success is the norm, to a world in which failure is ubiquitous? Will they have the capacity to cope?
Tim Harford fears they won't. In his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Follows Failure, Harford claims that messing up is central to learning. Students gain more from mistakes, blind alleys, and dead ends than from success. Failure allows students to "pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again." Such resilience is essential because it takes a long time to become an expert, at least 10,000 hours says Malcolm Gladwell in his often-cited book, Outliers. Expertise takes a long time to acquire because the real world has higher standards than schools or universities. It's not good enough for a concert pianist to be 50% accurate or for computer programs to work only half the time. What would healthcare be like if surgeons fluffed half their operations? A 10,000-hour apprenticeship provides plenty of opportunities for students to learn from their errors, and everyone knows that practice makes perfect. The character traits forged by confronting and overcoming failure—persistence, and determination—are vital to success in any field.
Courage is also essential. In a widely-praised Harvard University commencement address, J. K. Rowling told graduates: "What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure." Her audience had no trouble empathising. Fear of failure is endemic. It has spawned its own literature, with titles such as: Conquering the Fear of Failure, How to Overcome your Secret Fear of Failure, and No Fear of Failure. The Harvard Business Review devoted an entire issue to failure—"how to recognise it, how to handle it and how to learn from it."
Psychologists and psychiatrists have labelled the fear of failure "atychiphobia," a condition they are uniquely qualified to treat. According to Wikipedia, the repository of ersatz wisdom, pushy parents, who have unreasonable expectations of their children, are the cause of atychiphobia. But Rowling didn't buy it. "There is an expiry date on blaming your parents," she said. (Someone should tell the psychiatrists.) Instead of blaming others, Rowling took responsibility for her situation. She had reached rock bottom, "a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain." Her worst fear had come true—she had failed comprehensively. Yet, she felt strangely empowered. ("When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.") So why not write a book?
Rowling has a vivid imagination, and Michael Jordan is a superb athlete, but their talent is not the only or even the main reason for their achievements. What counts much more is their strength of character.
The idea that character traits forged out of adversity are more valuable than talent in determining success was the thesis of a category-defining book called Self-Help, published in1859 by the Scottish author Samuel Smiles. Like its modern descendants, Smiles' book combined pithy sayings ("a place for everything, and everything in its place") with a series of anecdotes designed to show that self-discipline is the essential ingredient of success. Smiles didn't deny that some people were stronger or more intelligent than others. Still, he considered these advantages less powerful than traits such as persistence and tenacity; qualities only acquired in the school of hard knocks.
Self-Help was a best seller, but its influence didn't last long; the views of the Social Darwinists soon eclipsed it. They agreed that ambition, hard work, and zeal are necessary to achieve any goal. However, in contrast to Smiles, they believed these traits were not learned from bitter experience but inherited in the same way as size, eye colour, and strength. Those born with the most successful character traits survive while others gradually die off. In this way, the Social Darwinists claimed that "natural selection" ensures the continuous improvement of the human race.
Because human intervention only gets in the way, the Social Darwinists wanted advanced schooling reserved for those born with the genetic endowment to benefit from it. Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, devoted considerable effort to developing tests to identify the elite individuals who were worthwhile educating. His tests were crude. Today's "intelligence" tests are reasonably proficient predictors of performance on academic examinations. But, they are not very good at identifying which students will complete their university studies and excel in their careers. Smiles would not have been surprised. Intelligence is valuable, but tenacity, resilience, and persistence are more critical determiners of who will succeed.
Angela Duckworth rediscovered the power of these character traits in her work on "grit." She lifted the word from the film, True Grit. In the movie, 14-year-old Mattie Ross sets out to avenge her father's murder; along the way, she redeems the alcoholic lawman Rooster Cogburn played by the legendary John Wayne. Mattie's tenacity, her refusal to be deflected from her goal no matter what hardship she meets, represents precisely what Duckworth means by grit. To measure this trait, Duckworth developed a "Grit Scale" that requires respondents to estimate how closely they resemble certain statements: I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for some time, but later lost interest; I finish whatever I begin.
In her early research, Duckworth administered the Grit Scale to cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point. In their first summer, cadets undergo a rigorous basic training known as "Beast Barracks," a brutal initiation that many cadets fail to complete. West Point psychologists tried to predict which cadets would survive Beast Barracks for years. They combined marks on entrance examinations, high school grades, fitness measures, and leadership potential into a single score. Despite its comprehensiveness, this score turned out to be a poor predictor of which cadets would survive Beast Barracks. The Grit Scale was far more accurate. The evidence was striking; sticking things out in a demanding environment is not just a matter of strength or intelligence—it also takes grit. Over time, Duckworth administered her scale to diverse populations (novice teachers, competitors in spelling "bees"), repeatedly confirming that when the going gets tough, the gritty get going.
Duckworth's research has important implications for university admissions. A combination of examination scores, school marks, letters of recommendation, portfolios of work, auditions, and other performance indicators determine selection for competitive courses. Yet, students who look like good bets on these selection criteria often do poorly and many drop out before completing their studies. Duckworth's research suggests that the list of indicators is incomplete. Admissions staff need to know which applicants will respond to a failing mark by studying twice as hard for the next examination, which will stay in at night and prepare for a test rather than go out with friends and which will stick with a task until they master it. In other words, admissions officers need to know if applicants have true grit.
Grit is usually estimated from interviews and personal statements, but the best evidence comes from life experience. Studies comparing students who attended low-income, non-selective state schools with those who went to private, selective schools found the former perform better at university than private school students despite having similar marks in high school. None of these studies measured grit, but it is reasonable to suspect that students from low-income, non-selective schools will have faced more obstacles along the way than students from independent or grammar schools. They will have had more opportunities to fail and start again, resulting in more grit.
Teachers, particularly those in private schools, have become accustomed to parental demands for extensions of assignment deadlines, second marking of examinations and various forms of "special consideration." This behaviour is becoming increasingly familiar to university lecturers as well.
It's entirely understandable; parents want their children to succeed. Unfortunately, they may be ensuring just the opposite. Protecting children from experiencing failure also prevents them from gaining self-confidence by overcoming it. There are no safe routes to success. If we want to prepare our students for life's inevitable slings and arrows, then, for their own sake, we must let them fail.
Earlier versions of this article appeared in the Times Higher Education Supplement (London) and the Australian Financial Review (Sydney).
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