Teach a kid to fail

Midway through a backpacking expedition I led with 15 college freshmen, I asked Claire — the nervous student designated to lead the day’s hike — if she had ever failed. At anything, ever. She furrowed her brow and then shook her head. She could not think of a single time. Claire made the varsity volleyball team as a freshman, got straight As, earned a full ride to the University of North Carolina. She was successful by all traditional metrics, but still unsteady, unconfident.

I see students like this on every NOLS course I teach, and I worry that we are raising a generation of Claires: students who are wonderfully accomplished and terrified to fail.

When I worked in admissions at Dartmouth College, I fielded calls from parents looking for advice on where to send their child to high school: Public or private? This boarding school or that one? They wanted to know the surest way to guarantee the child would go to an Ivy. The question came from a good place, yet it left me deeply troubled. If we orchestrate kids’ success from day one, how will they ever see that we trust them to solve failures and to create their own future?

Now that I live in Silicon Valley, I am surrounded by an ethos that celebrates failure. At the GSB, hundreds of students take Start-up Garage, idolizing entrepreneurs who “fail forward.” The mantras may seem passé, but an important upshot of this mindset is that it asks us to disentangle our self-worth from our accomplishments.

We need to model this attitude for our children, especially girls, earlier in life. We need to let go of the urge to ensure their success, and instead create more opportunities for them to take on real challenges, with real possibility of failure.

On Claire’s leader day at NOLS, for example, we hit classic “summer” weather in Norway’s mountains: sideways sleet and a full-on whiteout. I let Claire and her classmates lead and I trotted behind — while they hiked for five hours in precisely the wrong direction. When we hit the Swedish border, they finally realized they had botched the navigation, big time. And then they solved their way out of the mess. They pored over maps, figured out the error, busted out emergency peanut M&M’s, and hiked until 1 am to make it to the “X.” When we arrived at camp, Claire looked utterly exhausted — and triumphant.

In the morning she told me, “Yesterday I learned that I am capable of much more than I think I am.”

This is education at its finest. It is not a series of “right” decisions that optimize the way a student looks on the Common Application. It is building an environment that says: We trust you. We will be here if you really screw up. In the meantime: go make some mistakes.

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