Anyone who has been to college remembers what became affectionately know as “Freshman Comp” (English Composition 101). Rewind to first semester freshman year. I never before failed anything in my whole life, save for rope climbing in gym. This was until I got my first of five papers back in Freshman Comp. I along with many others in the class were totally stunned and bewildered when we saw our papers marked with the first F any of us had ever earned. For the record, I earned a D on my second paper, a C on the third, and a B on the fourth. On the fifth and final paper, when I wrote from my heart about my mother’s death, I earned an A. While A’s for me were common and taken for granted, the A on my last English paper left me both thrilled and ecstatic. The professor averaged out the grades and I got one of perhaps two C’s in college. The result: I felt great about myself and I learned how to write!
In an earlier blog (Am I Doing a Child a Favor?) I discussed why, in light of Seligman’s research, it may be both misguided and harmful to tell a child his performance is better than it actually is. Such praise often has the opposite of the desired effect of promoting self-esteem, since it may increase the risk of depression. In a recent New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Character Test,” Paul Tough argues, “Why our kids’ success – and happiness – may depend less on perfect performance than on learning how to deal with failure.”
Further, when children don’t have the opportunity to experience failure, they grow up lacking the ability and coping skills to handle challenging and frustrating situations. In the movie True Grit, the character Mattie Ross sets out to find her father’s killer by hiring Rooster Cogburn, a tough U.S. Marshall whom she believes possesses the trait of “true grit.” In reality it is 14-year-old Mattie who possesses the character trait of true “grit” as defined by Angela Duckworth (a student of Seligman’s).
We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress [italics mine]. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course. (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews & Kelly, 2007)
Mattie is the one, in spite of many frustrations, failures, rejections and disappointments, who is able to motivate Rooster to stay on the killer’s trail.
According to Tough, the headmasters of the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx and KIPP Infinity Middle School had both consulted with Seligman and Duckworth to find the character traits that most correlate with future success. While academic prowess resulted in college admission, the character strengths of optimism, self- control, grit and social intelligence were the factors associated with staying in and graduating from college. Reports Tough, “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…”
As we can see, overcoming failures, hurdles and challenges are important factors in fostering success. Let us not insulate our children from these experiences in our desire to protect them. In many instances, failure can be an important and motivating learning experience. Who know? Perhaps if I didn’t get that F on that Freshman Comp paper, I might not be writing this blog today.