There is a scene in the Disney animated feature Meet the Robinsons where the main character makes a spectacular mistake. Actually it's a repeat of a previous faux pas, but it impacts more people. As he begins to grovel and apologize, the boy's hosts begin cheering his failure. One character informs the confused boy that much is learned from failure, but "from success, not so much."
The aptly named Paul Tough discusses precisely this point this Wall Street Journal article. American culture, says Tough, has for the past few decades been fixated on the idea that a higher IQ naturally leads to success. Vast resources are committed to enhancing intelligence in children in the hope of ensuring greater success, despite the fact that such approaches rarely produce lasting gains.
Tough writes that "in the past few years, a disparate group of economists, educators, psychologists and neuroscientists has begun to produce evidence that calls into question many of the assumptions behind the cognitive hypothesis." These people assert that the most important childhood learning is not cognitive, but rather the development of "noncongnitive skills" such as "persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence."
A common term for these conglomerated noncognitive skills is character. "And character, even more than IQ," asserts Tough, "is what leads to real and lasting success." Of particular significance to the development of character is learning to overcome adversity. This means that success actually does begin with failure. Success is achieved in the overcoming of those failures.
This calls to mind a joke about a young man that is struggling to get his start in life trying to find out how to succeed by interviewing a seasoned successful man. When asked how he became successful, the older man answers, "Good judgement." When asked how he developed good judgment he responds, "Experience." When asked how he developed experience, he replies, "Poor judgment."
The development of character is an individual process that cannot be charitably distributed. Success can be had by anybody, but each must fashion his own by treading a road that includes many hardships.
Unfortunately, American culture has worked to streamline the childhood development experience to the point that "American children, especially those who grow up in relative comfort, are, more than ever, shielded from failure as they grow up. They certainly work hard; they often experience a great deal of pressure and stress; but in reality, their path through the education system is easier and smoother than it was for any previous generation. Many of them are able to graduate from college without facing any significant challenges."
Thus, a college degree does not guarantee success, even if it's earned from a top flight university.
So how do we instill character in our kids? Tough says that "the most valuable thing that parents can do to help their children develop noncognitive skills—which is to say, to develop their character—may be to do nothing. To back off a bit. To let our children face some adversity on their own, to fall down and not be helped back up." Let kids struggle through failure instead of rushing to rescue them from it.
In recent years LDS Church leaders for youth have undertaken the mantra, "You can do hard things." Programs have evolved to reflect this concept. While Tough's tough love approach is undoubtedly necessary, the church clearly takes the view that it's not enough to just let character development happen. A purposeful approach is required.
This past summer, my middle child went on a seriously challenging pioneer trek. A hardy group of souls donned mid-19th Century trail attire and pushed fully laden hand carts up and down hills across many miles of the old Pioneer Trail on the barren Wyoming prairie, camping along the way. They endured harsh weather conditions, blisters, and sore muscles. One leader said, "Trek wasn't fun. But it was worth it. It doesn't have to be fun to be worthwhile."
A few weeks later, this same child went backpacking with his scouting group in the High Uintas. Heavy rain toward the end of the week prevented them from achieving their goal of hiking a full 50 miles. But they put in a lot of miles with full packs on their backs. Having done a fair amount of backpacking in my time, I sought my son's opinion of the activity. I chuckled when he said that backpacking "is probably an activity for other people and not so much for me."
Having been involved with youth groups for most of my life, I can say from a leader perspective that it's a lot easier to do fun and easy activities. It's hard to get youth to come to service projects where real work is involved. But that's often where a sense of fulfillment is found.
Even with opportunities for youth to engage in challenging activities, I suspect that much of the real growth that leads to success comes from battling one's private failures. It is through these struggles that we discover our potential for excellence.
As a kid I keenly felt the humiliation that resulted from always being the last one selected for any kind of athletic contest. I frankly would have preferred to avoid such activities, but sometimes it was either required at school or it was the only way to hang out with friends. I'm still lousy at team sports and I avoid them if possible. But failure at sports helped me discover potential for excellence in other arenas, many of which I still enjoy.
I am reminded of the essay by author Lee Pitts titled, These Things I Wish for You that Paul Harvey popularized on his radio show. Pitts starts off by saying, "We tried so hard to make things better for our kids that we made them worse." He wishes for his grandchildren something better: "tough times and disappointment, hard work and happiness." It may well be that the only way to get the happiness result is to have the inputs of tough times, disappointment, and hard work.
But how many of us are really willing to let our kids grapple with their own challenges? The natural parental instinct seems to be to swoop down and save them from what they most need, especially when we can afford to do so. Unless we resist this urge, we may end up with kids that have their heads jammed full of information but that are denied what we really wish we could give them: happiness and success.