I ran this article a few years back, but have since received lots of positive feedback and several request to re-run or from subscribers wanting to pass along to friends and family. Like always, I encourage everyone to pass along anything I publish that might help make a positive difference in someones life. That’s something that brings a smile to my face and one of the most personal rewarding benefits I receive. I hope you enjoy it and it makes you think…

I was recently sent a great e-mail penned by Megan McArdle in reference to her new book, “The Up Side of Down”. In the e-mail McArdel discusses how America is now raising their children wrong by NOT allowing them to fail. Parents are simply not giving them permission to take on NEW challenges where they might fall flat on their face. In return we are not teaching our children how to accept criticism, how to overcome objections, and most importantly how to quickly pick themselves back up, dust themselves off and get back in the fight when things go wrong. McArdel argues this is vital not only on a personal level, but also vital for America, because that’s where innovation and growth come from. Parents are pushing their children harder than ever — micromanaging their lives, orchestrating things and manipulating the environment so that their children have as little opportunity as possible to go astray. It’s totally understandable. But it’s bad for the kids, bad for the parents, and bad for the nation. She goes on to tell story after story about how parents have now made children afraid to “fail.” Afraid to take that class where they might hurt their grade point average; afraid to try that sport where they might not be the best; afraid to do anything that might embarrass the parents or prove they are not as good as the neighbors kids… “America, you’re now doing it ALL wrong,” she screams! If you can’t afford to risk anything less than perfection at the age when your 13, then for heaven’s sake, when is it going to be the right time? This is the time when kids should be learning to dream big dreams and dare greatly. This is when they should be making mistakes and figuring out how to recover from them. Instead, we’re telling some of our best and brightest to focus all their talent on coloring within the lines. Below are few of the other reasons why she believes this is such a bad idea:

  • Kids are now spending their entire high school years in terror of making the slightest mistakes. In order to get into that top-school or fight for that scholarship kids can not afford to take any risk. At the time in their life when failure should have the lowest cost, when they should be learning to try things, and developing ways to think outside the box, they are being held down more tightly than ever.
  • This is a time when they should be learning how to identify when those great and crazy ideas aren’t working out so well. And gaining the ability to move on after the occasional embarrassing “flop.” If “perfection” is the goal, which many parents now expect, then the kids can’t afford to do any of that.
  • Unfortunately most kids are now avoiding areas that they are unfamiliar with — and the ones that at first seem to be the most difficult. So essentially we’re taking insanely bright, hardworking kids and discouraging them from trying NEW things that they might be great at, because what if they aren’t the “best” or even God forbid, “fail” at their first attempt.
  • We are teaching that “success” can often be achieved by doing what comes easiest, which we all have learned is the opposite of true.
  • We are drilling into their heads that success consists of jumping through a series of hoops to please the “system” and the “authority.” Of course, this is a valuable skill that everyone needs to learn, because hey, that’s part of life. But it shouldn’t be valued at such a level at such a young age.

 

Moral of the story, the longer this kid goes without failing, the more dreadful it will be when it finally happens. When you’ve never coped with failure, it starts to become imperative that you arrange your life so that it never happens. I watched a lot of MBAs and tech wizards melt down after 2001 because they had done everything they were supposed to do and somehow they found themselves out of a job? America needs more bright, hardworking kids taking on challenging tasks. But it does not need them to learn that success is a “formula” — or a zero-sum game in which the race goes to the safest. In fact, that’s exactly the opposite of what we need — and more important, it’s the opposite of what those kids need!

 One of my favorite books is “Popular Crime,” by the great Bill James. And this is one of my favorite passages:

First of all, as I see it, no one has any ability whatsoever to figure out what is going to be important to people. I look back on my own life. When I was in high school I had two habits that greatly irritated my teachers; actually, many more than two, but let’s focus. One was writing funny notes to my classmates, trying to make them crack up in the middle of class. The other was spending hours of valuable study time making mystifying totals from the agate type in the sports pages. I was called on the carpet any number of times and told to stop doing this stuff and pay more attention to What Was Really Important.

As I look back on those years, the two most useful things that I was doing, in terms of preparing me for my career, were 1) Writing humorous notes to my classmates, and 2) Making mystifying totals from the agate type in the sports pages. By writing amusing if vulgar notes to my classmates, I was learning to write — not learning to write in a way that would please English teachers, but learning to write in a way that would hold the interest of people who had no reason to read the note, other than the expectation that they would enjoy reading it. That’s much, much closer to writing books than writing insipid research papers to please bored English teachers. The adults in charge thought they knew what was important, but in retrospect they were just completely wrong.

At the personal level, most of us could attest to this — you never know what will end up being important, but it’s probably not what you think. And at the economy level, this is basically a pithy summation of what economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed “creative destruction”: the process by which old ideas, and companies, and even markets are destroyed in order that something previously undreamt-of can replace them.

Do we want a society that dreams new things and then makes them happen? I hear that we do, every time I hear a teacher, or a politician, give a speech. So why are we trying so hard to teach the next generation to do the exact opposite?
(Source: Megan McArdle “Go Ahead, Let Your Kids Fail” on Bloomberg)

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