After posting the original blog concerning failure and how dangerous it can be for us, I recalled another instance where this habit can be more toxic. Another relative of mine, thirteen years my junior, attended the same middle school as I did. Upon the completion of his 8th grade school year, he was going to fail two courses, requiring him to attend and pass summer school, or else be held back from high school. This same predicament also happened to two of my closest friends in middle school, thirteen years before. Here’s the difference over a decade can make: My cousin was able to participate in the promotion ceremony; my friends were required to stay home on the last day of school. This is not a question of fair or unfair; that argument is irrelevant. The point is that today’s kids, from what I have seen, are coddled and protected from reality. It’s all about letting kids feel good about themselves, despite the fact that they didn’t complete the work they were being rewarded for completing. Many people see this as improving one’s self-esteem; that’s bullshit. I could dedicate a 5,000 word post as to why, but I’ll give the executive summary instead: Self-esteem is meaningless without substance. And that’s what we’re teaching people these days, whether it be a participation trophy, a high school diploma, or a petty middle school promotion ceremony.
Many of you may remember a time when there was a clear distinction between winning and losing. Those who participated in sports know that the winners would get a trophy, while the other kid’s got a pat on the back and, “Better luck next year.” I distinctly recall many instances as a child where I competed in an activity and lost, and it wasn’t a delightful feeling. Nobody likes to lose; it sucks. However, around the end of the twentieth century, a shift in how children were treated occurred, and those who implemented those changes felt that they would solve the problem of how kids felt about activities in which they participated.
In the Fall of 1998, I participated in a basketball league sponsored by the Science Department at the University of Arizona. Our team had fun, but was only able to muster up one win during the regular season, and lost handily in the first round of the playoffs. The championship game was held at McKale Center, and after the game was over, something unusual happened. I, along with the rest of my teammates, received “participation” trophies, which were almost identical with the trophies received by the championship teams. I didn’t understand it back then, but in a way, it seemed like a condescending way of saying, “Good job, son. You and your team sucked this season, but congratulations on trying anyways.”
Although this may seem like a great way to boost a child’s self-esteem, all it does is shield them from the harsh reality that there are winners and losers in life.
Ask yourself a question: What have you learned from winning? Can you think of one vital life lesson that came from the feeling of winning? Most likely, your answer is somewhere along the line of, “it feels good.” Yes, it does feel good, but so does masturbation; not exactly something you can utilize as wisdom. Every victory in life has its scars to go along with it. And where do those scars come from? Failure, and the hard work that is put forth in-between failures. Without failure, growth is impossible.
This applies to many other aspects of childhood, especially in education. While I’m sure the administrators who passed the No Child Left Behind Act had the greatest intentions, all it has done is lowered the standards that children are required to reach. It has forced schools to find loopholes to get students to pass in order to avoid punishment from the federal government. A large percentage of students are making their way through school without knowing the truth about their skills.
I’m not trying to preach this to you; I know this from experience. The best example is to compare my high school experience to one of my relatives. I have been blessed with a gifted intellect, and the standardized tests I took always reflected that. In my district, a student needed 20 credits to graduate; by the time I reached my Senior year, I had seven-and-a-half. Seriously. Which is probably why I dropped out two weeks into the school year. A year of working dead-end jobs, I went to a testing center to get my GED, or known by my friends colloquially as, “The Best $50 I Ever Spent.” My relative, on the other hand, went through all the motions and received their diploma the four-year way. They were shocked, I’m sure, to find out they didn’t test out of ANY of the placement tests at the community college where we both studied. With all the emphasis on being prepared for college, wouldn’t it make sense that a graduate from high school should have the skill set necessary to transition to the next level seamlessly?
Does this mean I am smarter than they are? Absolutely not. The problem is two-fold: standardized tests put students in a vacuum, stifling individuals from realizing their true potential, and more importantly, when enforced improperly, they shield kids that should probably fail from doing so, sending them into a world unprepared for the stiff kick to the teeth they’re about to receive.
What happens when individuals are not exposed to the character-building sensations of failure? Look around sometime at the sense of entitlement that has infected so many people these days. “I never failed at anything growing up; everything should be easy for me,” is practically stamped on their smug faces. Fortunately, life doesn’t give a shit what one is prepared for. On the other end of the spectrum, we are seeing an entire generation of people who are too scared to try anything out of fear of being judged or labeled as a loser/failure. This creates a vicious circle of self-doubt that leaks into other aspects of one’s life.
Is there a solution to this problem? Yes, and it’s a simple one: there’s nothing wrong with failure, so don’t be afraid of it happening. This starts in the home at a young age. Parents, allow your children to fail; it’s not a death sentence. Allow them the freedom to choose activities that they enjoy, and encourage them to do their best no matter what they do. For the teens, find something you love to learn about, and immerse yourself in it. See a hot guy/girl that you want to ask out? Go for it. They said no? Who the fuck cares? Everyone gets rejected; it’s a part of life. Be bold, try things.
This goes for everyone: What do you do if you fail? Don’t beat yourself up, see what areas you can improve, and keep trying. The most important thing to remember is to enjoy the process; if you can’t then you’re involved in the wrong activity. Success and failure don’t make any difference to the quality of a human being. If you succeed, enjoy it, then move on to the next task; failing will only make you stronger and more prepared to try again. Looking at it from this perspective, no matter what, you’ve already won. Trust me, the world is much better off with character-engendered failures than a population full of empty winners.