Redefining failure as trail and error
The part of me that dreams of being a clinical psychologist is fascinated with behavior and language. I’m reading Ready or Not by psychologist Madeline Levine, PhD and it is fabulous. The tagline is: “Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World,” and I’m hanging onto every last word she has written.
The process of growth
In the book, Levine shares that Tony Wagner, Expert in Residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab said that he wanted to change the word “failure” with the term “trial and error.” “Dr. Wagner celebrates the process of growth through allowing kids to learn from not-quite-there attempts and false starts. “Otherwise,” he says, “it’s like telling a baby not to talk until he can speak in complete sentences.””
Whether it’s finding the courage to jump off the diving board or having a child try to sound out words while reading, we want our kids to persist. We want them to focus on what went well and what they might do differently the next time. Thinking about success from last week, it’s about redefining what it means to be successful. Success can be climbing the ladder on the diving board and climbing right back down. The process of growth reminds us, and our kids, that it’s not all or nothing. It’s precisely those not-quite-there attempts that are arguably all we really have.
Even as an adult, that fear of failure can be enough to scare us from engaging. For example, I’m not good at yoga so I don’t do it. But is attempting to do Trikonasana/Triangle pose better or worse than not attempting it at all? This is exactly the reminder I need to make sure I am modeling for my kids things I am not good at. Modeling those not-quite-there attempts so they don’t operate under any false assumptions. If they only see our successes without the path it took to get there, they might think they are the only ones who struggle.
Tell me more
Levine shares a strategy that she says psychologists use all the time which is to respond to kids with, tell me more. She makes the point that learning about how they think, what is going on in their mind and how they see the world is much more valuable than labeling an answer as right or wrong. I couldn’t agree more. It’s not that kids can’t handle being told they are wrong but rather trying to prioritize the process over the outcome. I have taught countless students who are too afraid of being “wrong” to even try.
It’s exciting to be be reminded that the words we use have an important impact our kids. Focusing less on the answer and more on how they arrived at the answer is a skill that will serve them time and time again. Helping them see their attempts as trial and error instead of failure is everything. It enables and encourages them to take risks. As Levine says, “Establishing inquisitiveness, enthusiasm about learning, and having an open, playful and agile mind is much more important than memorizing numbers. Every business leader I spoke to about future valuable skills underscored this exact point.”
This all came together for me when I read this part in the book and then overheard my husband on a business call. He was interviewing someone for a job and all I could think about was the skills he was looking for. He assured the candidate that they will teach him the job specific skills. What my husband prioritized was that they were looking for someone who collaborates with others, problem solves, adapts to change, and is willing to learn. As Levine said and my husband echoed, the far easier part is teaching the skills.
While we can’t control our children (which I remind myself of daily), we can help our kids develop the skills they need to be successful. Tell me more signifies what truly matters to us and places the highest value on their not-quite-there attempts.