Monday, May 18, 2020

The success and beauty in failure

Part of my occasional, ongoing series working with the book, The Collapse of Parenting, by Dr. Leonard Sax.

Aaron S. Robertson

A couple of stories to open this discussion up

In his 2016 book, The Collapse of Parenting, Leonard Sax, MD, Ph.D., devotes Chapter 5 to attempting to answer the question, "Why Are So Many Kids So Fragile?" There are two stories from that chapter that I find fitting to share here.

The first one is about a young man named Aaron (that's a cool name, by the way). Aaron has been a gamer since early childhood, and he's a whiz at the game Madden NFL Football. In high school, during a routine checkup, the nurse practitioner told Aaron and his dad, Steve, that Aaron was overweight. She recommended sports as an outlet to increase his physical activity. Steve, in turn, suggested to Aaron that he give football a try. Steve was a football player throughout his time in middle and high school, and he really enjoyed it. He had already been encouraging Aaron to give it a shot for quite a few years, but to no avail. But when some of Aaron's pals, who were fellow gamers, decided to try out for the JV team, Aaron finally caved in.

Here's what happened, in Steve's words, from the book:
“Aaron was pretty cocky when he went to the tryouts. He thought that being master of Madden NFL Football would give him an advantage. But the coach said he wanted to get a sense of who was in shape and who wasn’t. So he had them do some sprints. Then he made everyone run a mile, and every boy was timed. Aaron’s times in the sprints were terrible, and he took nearly 12 minutes to run a mile. One mile. The coach said, ‘Son, I have no idea whether you’re going to be able to play this game or not. You’re out of shape. I expect to see you back here tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. with the other kids who are out of shape. You’ll run another mile around the track, then we’ll go the weight room.”

“What happened? Did Aaron go back the next morning” I asked.

“Nope. He never went back. That was his first and last foray into any kind of after-school sport…” (Sax, 2016, pp. 94-95)
Julia was a high school junior when her story was told in the book. She was very competitive by nature. Dr. Sax surmises that perhaps she got some of that from her parents. Mom is an investment banker, dad a surgeon. Long story short, Julia attempted to take AP Physics her junior year, a course that is usually taken senior year. Accustomed to always being at the top of her class, or at least very close to the top, she scored a 74 on the first quiz. Her teacher suggested after this first quiz that it wasn't too late to consider dropping the course. This, unfortunately, sent Julia into a downward spiral emotionally and mentally.

After some hard convincing by her mom, Jennifer, Julia started getting help from a tutor. She scored a 79 on the second quiz, and this sent her into a total depression. She couldn't handle getting a C in the course. Jennifer took her to see the pediatrician, who placed her on a low dosage of an antidepressant. It helped for a short period of time, but her mood and feelings relapsed. Jennifer then decided to take her to a psychiatrist, who recommended adding another medication to the mix. She was alarmed when she read the potential side effects of this medication, which included weight gain and diabetes. That prompted Jennifer to reach out to Dr. Sax for a second opinion (Sax, 2016, pp. 95-98). 

Here's the scoop: You're going to experience failure numerous times in life.

You're going to encounter failure throughout your life. Many, many times. Countless times, in fact. In all sorts of contexts, places, situations, and sizes - in school; the workplace; relationships of all kinds; sports; business ventures; tests of all kinds; not getting into your top college choices; your finances; not getting that dream job, internship, or scholarship; and from simple mistakes to what may feel like the end of the world to you.

There are two main contributing factors that lead to, or accelerate, these failures:

1) Simply encountering circumstances beyond our control, and there will be plenty of these.

There were many other applicants that were better qualified. The economy is crashing, and now I'm out of a job. The other team showed up to play, while my team was nowhere to be found. A recession is causing my investments to nosedive. I just didn't foresee this as a possibility, and so it caught me completely off guard. A sports injury has railroaded my dreams of going pro. And, let's be honest - there are people out there who are just jerks by nature, and nothing you say or do will ever change or please them. They will put up barriers for you without any particular rhyme or reason.

2) Circumstances that are totally within our control.

Instead of studying for the big exam, I decided to spend all that time playing video games with my friends. I didn't ask for help when I needed it, and now I'm in a mess. I could have been a better listener for my friend. I let my teammates down by not putting in the practice time I needed to. I never saved anything (money), and now I'm out of work. Etc., etc.  

Here are the solutions to overcoming failure and powering ahead

First off, accept and embrace failure as a natural part of life that's not going away. Simply accepting this fact is actually quite liberating and empowering. The earlier you can embrace this truth, the better you'll be prepared mentally and emotionally for when these times do come along, and they surely will. You'll be more level-headed, even-keeled, and able to look at things more objectively and reasonably. 

See every situation, every failure, as an opportunity to learn. Every situation in life and career is a learning opportunity that will better prepare you for future success. Ask yourself, and really take the time and effort to reflect on, questions like: What can I take away from this experience? What in this situation did I have control over? In regard to those things that I did have control over, what could I have done better? What could I have taken more seriously? How can these newfound insights better prepare me for the future?

The current situation that we find ourselves in, the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, presents many such learning opportunities to us, if we simply take the time to listen to them. In a post that I just published last week, "Building your own personal economy," I discuss, and offer a number of solutions to, how this crisis has fully unmasked (pun intended) the true magnitude of Americans' lack of savings. We're living paycheck to paycheck, we can't fund an unexpected $500 car repair, and missing work for even a week or two with all the lock downs and business closures across the country has left us in dire straits. 

Yin and Yang
Realize that success and failure are intertwined, and that you cannot have one without the other. Look at success and failure as Yin and Yang. It's an axiomatic truth that they are interconnected, and that one cannot exist without the other. We can't have success without failure, because it's learning from those failures that leads to the successes. And we can't have failure without success, because we wouldn't have anything to compare failure to. And because we wouldn't have anything to compare failure to, we wouldn't have anything to strive for. We wouldn't know what success looks and feels like because it doesn't exist.       

One of the very first posts I wrote for this blog, way back in December 2018, is, "Success comes from not quitting." And in that post, I discuss the career highlights of several historical figures, mostly athletes. And the reason why they became legends - the reason why we know their names today - is because they simply kept going. Every day was a new day, a new opportunity to learn from yesterday's mistakes and defeats. A new day to notch another victory.

As I note in that post, pitcher Cy Young has the most wins in baseball, but guess what? He also racked up the most losses. Neither record is even close to ever being broken. The biggest loser in baseball is also its biggest winner. Babe Ruth was the home run king for decades before Hank Aaron came along and took the title. Decades after Aaron, as we know, Barry Bonds claimed it. But while Ruth was the home run leader for decades, he also held the record for most strikeouts. That record - the most strikeouts - was eventually claimed by another legendary slugger, Reggie Jackson. Michael Jordan and Bob Cousy were cut from their high school basketball teams. And Thomas Edison was said to have failed thousands of times on the light bulb before he finally got it right.

Adopt a Growth Mindset, and unleash the power of yet.

This next point ties in well with this notion about seeing every situation as a learning opportunity. I recently took an online course as a part of my ongoing professional development called "Teaching Online: Principles, Techniques and Strategies." The course covered, among other subjects, the Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset philosophy. I was already aware of this approach prior to taking this course, but it was great to get a refresher on it, and it definitely fits the overall topic of this post. Check out this video that was in the course. It does a wonderful job of explaining the concept:

And check out this poster, which ties in really well with the video:

The power of yet

Adopting a growth mindset and understanding the power of yet is what frees up your mind to allow you to see every situation - every failure - as a learning opportunity.

Try looking at your failure from a different perspective - it may not be nearly as bad as you think.

Here's my take on Julia's situation - I'm actually a little jealous of her. I make it no secret that I was a slacker in high school. From where I stand, her carrying a C in AP Physics is far more than I ever accomplished in high school, and college credit is college credit. A grade of a C is passing the course, and that means college credit before even filling out the admissions application. Combined with her other AP coursework throughout high school, she's well on her way to a much faster (and far less expensive) start in college - as well as in career and life - than I ever was. Whereas Julia saw that C as being a major failure, I see it as simply standing for the word, "Credit." There you have it - a different perspective.

Have backup plans.

Around six months ago, in mid-November, I wrote this brief post about the importance of cultivating many options - essentially, having a few viable backup plans ready to go in case things don't work out as you had planned, or simply to enable you to explore new territory and opportunities, or to hedge your bets against risks.

Finally, work on building courage, humility, and gratitude - NOT self-esteem.

I'll close with this passage from the book that I found particularly insightful and relevant for this post. It's on the dangers of self-esteem. Now, that may sound somewhat strange to say - that we shouldn't have a high amount of self-esteem - I found it somewhat strange and paradoxical at first, as well. But I read this passage a couple of times and really reflected on it for some time, and it now makes perfect sense to me. All too often, we tend to confuse self-esteem, because it's a big word or phrase that's ingrained in our culture, with what we should really be aiming for - courage, humility, and gratitude. These characteristics are different from self-esteem, as we'll discover here. Here is that passage:
Charlene has very high self-esteem. I don’t think that’s such a good thing. Her high self-esteem at age 15 is setting her up for disappointment and resentment at age 25. I have witnessed this trajectory many times. Soaring self-esteem in childhood and adolescence, carefully nurtured by parents and teachers, predictably leads to a crash after college, typically about 3 to 5 years after graduation, when it slowly dawns on the young adult - the same adult who had been so talented as an adolescent - that she’s actually not as talented as she thought. She discovers that just because she was repeatedly told that she is amazing does not mean that she is, in reality, amazing.

Put bluntly, the culture of self-esteem leads to a culture of resentment. If I am so wonderful, but my talents are not recognized and I’m still nobody at age 25, working in a cubicle - or not working at all - then I may feel envious and resentful of those who are more successful than me. How come that other young writer got her novel published, and she was on the TODAY Show and I can’t even get an agent?

One parent recently said to me, 'Kids need self-esteem. I want my daughter to have the courage to apply for that big job, her dream job. And that requires self-esteem.'

Not quite, I answered. Taking appropriate risks requires courage, first and foremost. Again, many parents confuse self-esteem with courage, just as some parents tend to confuse humility with timidity and cowardice. To be courageous means that you recognize the risks and your own limitations, but you find the resolve to move forward anyhow. The young person with bloated self-esteem, unaware of her own deficiencies, is unlikely to do well in the job interview. But the young person who is genuinely interested in what the recruiter has to say is more likely to get the job.

The right kind of humility helps you to recognize your own shortcomings. To be better prepared. To understand the risks. And to take those risks courageously, when necessary.

The antidote to the culture of bloated self-esteem is the culture of humility. If I am in the culture of humility, then I rejoice at the success of others, and I am happy with my portion. The culture of humility leads to gratitude, appreciation, and contentment. The key to lasting happiness is contentment.

This conclusion is now grounded in some compelling research. Investigators have recently found that if an individual has a grateful attitude toward life, that individual is more likely to be satisfied with life, more contented, and happier. (Sax, 2016, pp. 162-163).

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