The Success of Failure

Anybody that knows me, knows that I love high school sports.  There are a lot of great life lessons to be learned from sports.  And I really love coaching basketball.    It’s important in life to know where your strengths and weaknesses lie as a person, but as far as coaching basketball goes, I  believe I have some measure of skill when it comes to teaching the game.  And what makes me love the game so much?  Because I began, by all accounts,  as a  failure.

I consider myself to have been a mildly successful high school varsity athlete (for at least one year).  I started and played the majority of quarters, innings, etc. my senior year in three sports.  I was not however a successful athlete in grades 6-10.  In fact I played very little and practiced a lot.  This included one sophomore basketball campaign in which I practiced with the team the entire year and did not enter a single contest.

This was not easy for me or my parents.  And now as a parent of a child that enjoys sports, I understand the parenting difficulties as well.  It was a tremendously frustrating experience.  Yes, I shed tears.  And yes, I wanted to quit.  But I didn’t.  And God bless my parents for not attempting to solve that problem for me by marching in to “speak” with the coach or the principal.  It wasn’t the coaches fault that I wasn’t good enough to break into the starting line-up, it was mine.  And after a bit of soul-searching and some hard work,  I found a great deal of pride in the process of hard work and improvement.  Once I made that mental adjustment, I found nothing detrimental  about my lack of playing time.  It became an incentive to take the personal responsibility for my improvement, and to put in the work required to achieve playing time.   It also forced me to find other avenues to be successful, as I was an average athlete.  Those other avenues included more hustle and increasing my basketball IQ.

I must admit that it took me some time (and maturity) to see the value of this experience, but the extra effort I put in to reach the position I desired made it even more worthwhile when I did get the chance to play on a regular basis.  And looking back, I wouldn’t trade that experience for more varsity letters or additional playing time at any level.  The skills I learned from dealing with multiple failures have been put to use repeatedly and successfully in both my personal life and professional career.  And trust me, like everyone else on the planet, there continues to be no shortage of failures in my life,  both small and large.

Now, both anecdotal data and educational research is emerging that shows experiences similar to mine may be instrumental to the future success of our students.  An article in New York Times Magazine entitled “The Character Test” does an excellent job of summarizing recent findings, stating that “our kids success – and happiness – may depend less on perfect performance than on learning how to deal with failure”.

In addition to reviewing recent research on the topic, the article pulls heavily from the experiences of two educators.  David Levin, is co-founder of the KIPP Network of charter schools.  Levin believes strongly in character development as a part of the curriculum.  As Levin watched the progress of KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.”

Dominic Randolph, Headmaster for the highly acclaimed Riverdale Country School in New Your City , one of NYC’s most prestigious private schools states, “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, 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, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.” A teacher at Riverdale echoed Randolph’s comments stating, “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering, and when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents.”

This New York Times Magazine article touches on a recurring thread I have found in educational research which I believe is more important for our future success than any English or Mathematics curriculum.  This article in PHI DELTA KAPPAN (from 1994 mind you), is well worth the time to read and summarizes a large body of research succinctly. It leads me to believe that our national obsession with promoting self-esteem within kids has unwittingly resulted in a generational time bomb of risk averse, failure sensitive children who eventually develop an over inflated sense of entitlement.

As the PHI DELTA KAPPAN article notes, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned with how kids feel.  “Concern about students’ social and psychological needs hardly precludes attention to their intellectual development; in fact, the two enterprises may be mutually reinforcing. But this answer does not mollify the critics, many of whom proceed to make the following argument: if students are expected to work hard, if they are graded strictly and rewarded or praised only when they have earned it, they will come to develop a sense of self-respect which is (depending on the critic) either better than self-esteem or a prerequisite for it.

As the Character Test  article points out, this is the central paradox of contemporary parenting, “We have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small.  And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.”

Eventually, this may also become the central paradox of the educational process.  We all know we need our students to face greater challenges.  And the research clearly shows some measure of controlled failure is good for students.  I’ve spent enough time around kids to know they are resilient enough to not only handle the kinds of failures that school presents, they can grow from them.  The question becomes…can our parents?  If they can, we can build a rigorous instructional and extracurricular environment that truly prepares students for life beyond these walls.  If they can’t, the divide between true rigor and life as we know it now will continue to grow.


About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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4 Responses to The Success of Failure

  1. Rollie says:

    Excellent post. I could not agree more.

  2. I would go a step further and say every kid at 18 needs bootcamp… Amen

  3. Chuck Stortzum says:

    Fantastic article! As a former Superintendent, I agree where I got was from some of the failures that I had to overcome.

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