Learning to Fail

Learning to Fail

Depressed woman looking through window

There’s an odd new-ish problem besieging a certain segment of our population that deserves some attention: it appears that the most successful and most-likely-to-succeed young people among us have developed an inordinate fear of failure of any kind. In the June 25, 2017 edition of the New York Times (Sunday Styles Section), columnist Jessica Bennett lays out the issues in her article, Learning to Fail. They are a little hard to grasp, especially for someone like me who was raised at a time when every smart girl I knew was battling her own version of “inferiority complex” and countless real and imagined exterior barriers to her success were very real. I also clearly remember that our mothers frequently warned us “not to get too big for our britches”, which meant we weren’t supposed to think too much of ourselves or become too confident “or people wouldn’t like us.” Times have definitely changed for the better, but change is always harder than we think it will be. Now there seems to be more of a quest for perfection and a terrible fear of failure, not just for women and girls.

Everyone But You Is a Star

A young, attractive Smith College student, Jaycee Greeley, whose photo is featured in the Bennett article, explains, “It’s pretty easy, by viewing social media, to convince yourself that everyone but you is a star.” This misperception is so widespread that several colleges, including Smith, have found it necessary to develop programs to help students learn to “fail well.” Such programs aim to de-stigmatize failure through discussions on perfectionism and resilience and by making students aware of the increase in anxiety and in requests for counseling on campuses. Over ten years ago, faculty at Stanford and Harvard began to use the term “failure deprived” to describe what they were seeing: the idea that even though students were appearing more and more outstanding on paper, they seemed less and less able to cope with relatively simple struggles.

Perceived Failure a Growing Concern

“Many of our students just seemed stuck,” Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford and author of How to Raise an Adult wrote. In 2010, after a wave of student suicides, a consortium of academics formed to share resources regarding the growing concern about students’ perceived failure, and programs addressing this problem began to proliferate. There is the Success-Failure Project at Harvard; the Princeton Perspective Project, which encourages conversation about setbacks and struggles; Penn Faces at the University of Pennsylvania, a play on the term used by students to describe those who have mastered the art of appearing happy even when they are struggling; and others.

Succeeding at Every Level

“There is this kind of expectation of students at a lot of these schools to be succeeding at every level: academically, socially, romantically, in our family lives, and in our friendships,” said Emily Hoeven, a recent graduate who helped start the Penn Faces project in her junior year. She continues, “And also sleep eight hours a night, look great, work out, and post about it all on social media. We wanted to show that life is not that perfect.”

Well, thank God! Because it doesn’t usually take most people all that long to learn, from personal experience, that life has its ups and downs, that aiming for and working toward a good life is probably more doable and reasonable for most people than desperately trying to create and maintain a perfect one, whatever that would be. The maxim, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” remains as true today as ever.

(For more reading on the subject of fear of failure, you might want to check out my blog of March 2012, called Fail at Something Every Day, advice from the mouth of Spanx entrepreneur and billionaire, Sara Blakely, who credits her own father for insisting that she and her brothers literally learn to fail at something every day — and grow from it. They did.)

Our dear Bonnie Bonetti-Bell was the force behind our Career/Life Coaching services, until her passing in 2019. As a principal of our firm, Bonnie had an innate talent for seeing the best in people. Moreover, she helped others see the best in themselves. Bonnie is fondly remembered and deeply missed.

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