The Gift of Failure

This was a fantastic book about the importance of failure to growing up. The premise is one that has become popular in Silicon Valley lore — to fail quickly, learn a lot, and then do something else great. Only rather than finding technological or financial success, failures for children help them discover resilience, lessons, novel approaches, and independence. It’s a great book for any parent concerned about today’s tendency for helicopter parenting.

The author happened to teach a friend of ours, so it retained a little extra poignancy based on that. Even without it, the author does a great job of talking through both the difficulties of and importance of allowing our children to fail. There are dozens of examples of how failure provides a learning experience, and each one helped strengthen my resolve to embrace my children’s failures as well as find growth opportunities within each one. I’m disappointed to say that I listened to much of this audiobook while being away from my kids, due to work and travel, but the inspiration feels like enough to stay in the back of my mind.

Growing up, and well into my adulthood, I would regularly be with my father when something went awry. Many times, though not all, he would observe it and say it was a ‘teachable moment.’ I came to think of them as specific “things” that happened, occurrences, and that my dad was great at noticing them. Having become a parent, and now reading books like this, I realize that he had this idea down before it was popular — allow for mistakes, and make sure learning takes place to fix it the next time. Another primary theme is to keep a cool approach throughout all of parenting’s ups and downs, which is incredibly difficult when so many other things are swirling around in my head. However, to be the parent that I genuinely want to be, I need to focus better when with my kids and to maintain a level of composure that allows me to recognize mistakes and help correct them, rather than just reacting emotionally to them.

The latter part of the book was focused on the importance of failure during middle school, high school, and college years, which all sounded very worthwhile but isn’t applicable to me for another few years. The foundation she talked about early on, though, was outstanding and will make me a better parent. A fun parallel is that this lesson is applicable in the workplace too — if my direct report makes a mistake, rather than simply fixing it and passing it along, I should make the observation and help him grow. It’s important to note that allowing failure is not simply throwing a person out and letting them fend for themselves; it takes practice, support, giving independence, and helping set up structures so that they are primed and prepared to be independent.

There was a really powerful story the author told about when she was first starting this “allow my kids to fail” experience. After maybe six months, she had agreed with her son in middle school that he would be responsible for packing his backpack each day for school, and that she wouldn’t nag. It worked for a long while, but one day he forgot an important piece of homework he had worked hard on the night before. It sat on the table as he climbed on the bus, and she felt conflicted. She had a visit with a teacher or principal at his school planned for the day, and it would have been really easy to bring it along. However, she held out. When he got home, she asked about his day, and motioned towards the homework lying on the table. He acknowledged it readily, and said that he had worked it out with the teacher that he would bring it in the next day. She asked if there were any repercussions, and he said he had to stay in from recess and do some extra work; he presented it matter-of-factly, and she let it go. He had handled it like a mature person, and she had allowed him to work through the consequences on his own.

Ultimately, this feels like a book I should read every couple years, to retain the lessons and help me steel against the desire to shower love on my kids by doing things for them. They need to grow, they need to become independent, and that is my ultimate role as a father. I’m happy to have these thoughts at the forefront of my mind, and expect to be a better father because of it. I may fail in that quest, but I’ll learn the lessons and keep getting better.