The Value of Failure in Adolescence

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This weekend while I was spring cleaning, I came across a thirty-year old, yellowed pay stub buried in a box of dusty memorabilia.  I’d kept the stub all these years as a fond, if ironic, reminder of one of the most instructive professional experiences in my life–the day I was fired from my first job.

Hoping to save up for a shiny green ten-speed bicycle, I took a job at a nursery that sold rose bushes, bags of manure, and landscaping services mostly to wealthy housewives from Atherton, California.  My primary duty, I was told, would be to drive things around on a little electric nursery cart and load them into the trunks of our customers’ Mercedes Benz’s.

But the older nurserymen—tan, bearded, and tough—quickly took me under their collective wing. They saw something in me, it seemed, some seed of mischief worth cultivating.  So along with a few of their favorite dirty jokes, they taught me how to take a nap in air conditioned flower house without getting caught, how to kick the coke machine to get a free drink, and how to do wheelies on the electric carts.  It was so flattering to be pulled into this fraternity of rapscallionism that I quickly lost track of what I was actually there to do.  My overriding goal was to emulate and please this group of rough, worldly, older men.

I soon developed a talent for stealing naps and cokes, but those wheelies required practice.  So practice I did.  When I finally achieved my first full wheelie— accelerating the cart in reverse to full speed and then throwing  it suddenly into first gear—the front of the cart rose up in the air to a thrilling 45 degrees and crashed down loudly…right in front of the nursery owner and the horrified, blue-haired customer he was helping.

The Fruits of Failure

Needless to say, I was given my last paycheck that afternoon and politely told not to come back.  I was unable to find another job that summer and I did not get the bike.  But I did learn some lessons from that failure that have since informed my professional life.  Simple things, like: 1) do to get, 2) begin each day with the end in mind (in that case, a green 10 speed), 3) work now, play later, 4) know who you work for…and who you don’t, 5) learn from setbacks, and 6) don’t do wheelies at work.

Getting fired was humiliating and carried the additional consequences of a summer’s worth of boredom and the deferment of my 10-speed dream.   But it was extremely instructive.  As educator and TedX speaker, Diana Laufenberg, says, “you have to be comfortable with this idea of allowing kids to fail as a part of the learning process.”   Laufenberg actually structures her teaching around highly experiential, group-oriented, somewhat ambiguous projects—projects that are designed create opportunities for what she calls “instructional” failures.  When young people are able to fail with the right kind of adult support, she says, they can process that failure, learn from it, and do better next time.  Growth, according to Laufenberg and many other educators, therapists, and even biologists, is dependent upon some level of stress, such as that accompanying failure.

Laufenberg’s classroom experiments with teachable failure are supported by reams of developmental research.  But North American parenting and educational practices have moved toward insulating children from stress and failure to the point that many young people reach young adulthood ill-equipped for the realities of work and independence.   These young people may lack the resilience and persistence necessary to succeed in the face of everyday setbacks.   Our preferred strategies for preserving self-esteem are well documented by educational researchers: lowering standards, premature intervention, and praising success while ignoring failure.  Ironically, these avoidant attempts to preserve self esteem actually impede the kind of persistence, earned confidence, and unconditional positive self-regard that is at the core of sustainable positive self-regard.

Industry and Inferiority

More than fifty years ago, Erik Erikson advocated a developmental approach that balanced a sense of one’s own personal ability/agency (“industry”) with what he termed a “sense of inferiority.”  By inferiority, Erikson meant that along with a sense of my own abilities I should develop an appreciation of my deficits—those abilities, talents, and skills that I do not possess but others do.  This balance can give me a sense of my singular value, my potential contributions and role in a group, and an appreciation for the value of others.  The result is a pro-social balance of confidence and humility.

Failures, especially when they occur in a milieu rich with adult nurturance and support, can also help young people develop resiliency by demonstrating that they have value and are loved regardless of performance.  Experiencing unconditional nurturance can help young people reframe failures as instructive “setbacks,” according to Brenda K. Bryant of UC Davis. Bryant says that “learning how to turn failure into a meaningful experience that enhances functioning,” should ideally occur in childhood.  But many adolescents and young adults with emotional and behavioral problems have missed this basic developmental opportunity.

This coping deficit may be manifest as apparent irresponsibility or laziness—especially when the young person has a history of repeated failures in certain areas without adequate nurturance or support.  This results from an avoidant coping style designed to insulate the young person from further failure and discouragement by removing the risk of trying.  Other young people may cope with fear of failure by engaging in disruptive or noncompliant behaviors.  When an individual has not learned to engage a problem, make mistakes, learn, and proceed, there may be a tendency to give up easily at the first sign of struggle.

Coping

Whether it occurs at the ideal developmental phase called “middle childhood” or later in life, teaching young people to engage failure appropriately is a critical skill for successful adult functioning—both at work and at home.   Especially with adolescents and young adults who have other coping deficits, this is a challenging process that requires, according to Bryant, a combination of strategies customized to meet the individual’s needs.

These elements can include:

  • maintaining a high standard rather than lowering standards when young person struggles,
  • discussing and processing failures rather than ignoring them,
  • coaching students toward concrete new strategies when first efforts don’t succeed,
  • creating a cooperative rather than competitive learning and living environment, and
  • offering nurturance and support regardless of performance.

Never too Late

Finding my own wrinkly token of childhood “failure” was a good reminder that setbacks are often more instructive than successes.   None of us wants to fail, but setbacks give us some of our richest opportunities to listen, learn, and persist.  It’s through supported challenges that we are most likely to cultivate a productive balance of confidence and humility.  The good news is that a positive relationship with failure can be developed even in young people who may have missed this developmental milestone at a younger age.