May 27, 2016


I want my kids to fail, and I don’t mean the type of “fails” found in the YouTube vines that resemble a blooper reel.

I hope my kids pour their hearts into an endeavor, such as making the school soccer team, getting the lead role in a musical, or passing an important exam.   I hope they practice and rehearse in a way that would make any parent proud. I want them to fret for weeks in anticipation of the tryout or test, and to be overwhelmed by nerves while waiting for the results.   I hope my kids face a challenge that completely consumes them, that feels like the most important thing in their young worlds, and when they’ve got what they think is all their chips on the table, when they’ve opened themselves up for an honest assessment that could crush their egos, I hope they fail.

I’m not immune to the pain that comes with defeat. I hate to lose, and I rarely admit my mistakes.

I don’t take pleasure in other people’s misery either. If there is anything that stings more than my own failures, it’s watching my children struggle.

Failing is difficult. However, in direct contrast to what society tells us, failing is not the opposite of success. Failing is the path to achievement.

Michael Jordan was once cut from his high school basketball team. It’s been claimed that Albert Einstein couldn’t read until age 9. “Walt Disney was fired from a local newspaper for not being creative enough.” These types of stories abound, because it usually takes time, practice and perseverance to be truly great. Along the way, there are going to be failures.

If my kids are good at something the first time they try it, they’ll be better the next time. If they are excellent on the first try, they should try something harder. If their first attempt was a complete disaster, then they may have found a challenge that’s truly worth pursuing.

To succeed, my kids probably must first fail … a lot.   But, failing itself is sooooo challenging. In other words, to fail successfully, they must first fail at failing.

Failing is painful, and it should be. We should be sad, frustrated, and curse-the-gods mad when we don’t succeed. That comes with ambition.

(Ambition usually leads to an honest attempt, and without an honest attempt, failing is…well…just failing, and that’s not so good.)

While I never like to see my children suffer, I can handle when they cry after losing a Saturday soccer game or get visibly frustrated when they struggle to read. (On the other hand, when Dad flips the Candyland board because he’s about to lose, it’s not a praiseworthy demonstration of his competitive fire. He’s just being a jerk.)

There is a part of me that’s happy when my kids are upset with a mistake or a loss. Their feelings show me that they truly want to succeed.

I don’t want my children to be comfortable with failing. However, I do want them to recognize that it’s a byproduct of a constant quest for self-improvement. I want my children to learn that failure is agonizing and good!

Unfortunately, my kids are growing up at a time when we don’t keep score at children’s sporting events, and we’re afraid to mark homeworks with red ink.

I’m aware of the science that suggests that kids have trouble losing or feel bad when their exam is graffitied with red marker. I’m not sure that bad feelings are a problem (and those studies aren’t telling parents anything they don’t already know.)

I’m also aware that competitiveness can interfere with development, and a lack of confidence can be an obstacle to learning. Those are real problems that need to be addressed, but is the solution to avoid the obstacle?

When we stop keeping score and don’t tell students they are wrong, we’re avoiding the problem, and we aren’t providing the students the opportunity to experience and learn from failing.

Instead, could we figure out how to use these situations as teaching moments? Can we change children’s mindsets so that they don’t view their mistake or misfortune as an indication of an irreversible condemnation of their academic (or other) career? Can we teach them that it’s ok to be frustrated, but that they should be proud of their honest attempts, and through their efforts, they’ve improved themselves?

Most children aren’t very good at math. If we treated math like we do losing, we’d wait until children were 18 to teach multiplication. We can probably guess how that would turn out. Our children would grow up to be as likely to attempt a math problem as current college students are to raise their hand when they aren’t sure of the answer.

At my college, we will soon be allowing students to take some courses pass/fail. This change was largely motivated by students requesting the opportunity to explore new topics without fear of it impacting their GPA. Ponder that for a moment. We’ve created a system where students go off to college and then avoid exploring new areas of study that interest them.

I completely understand why students are afraid of poor grades, why B has become the new F. Future employers and graduate schools review students’ transcripts like their academic record is a pair of mint condition original Air Jordans from 1985, which have been autographed by Jordan himself. Any blemish on the student’s record greatly decreases the student’s value.

Instead, a student’s academic history should more closely resemble a marathon runner’s training shoes. The holes and worn-out soles suggest a runner that has trained hard and is prepared for the big race.

Yes, consistently low marks can indicate the type of poor performance or general apathy that employers should avoid. However, poor marks in challenging courses early in a student’s career can indicate a willingness to challenge oneself, and improved grades over the four years suggest a student can persevere.

As a mathematician, I have an unhealthy obsession with quantifying things, but I’m also aware that a student’s GPA cannot capture all of her academic qualities. It can’t even capture the most important ones.

Students’ obsessions to preserve their GPA aren’t a reflection of their fear of failing. Their obsessions are a rational response to society’s inability to properly interpret failure.

In regards to the students, I’m more concerned with their unwillingness to participate in class unless they are absolutely certain they are correct.   I’m troubled over their extreme reactions to a homework problem they view as too challenging.

If students immediately know the answer to every question, then they aren’t in an appropriate class. If they are going to learn, they need to challenge themselves. They must encounter problems that they don’t know how to solve. Inevitably, they will get some wrong. That’s more than acceptable; that’s learning.

So, the next time a teacher asks for a volunteer to attempt a difficult problem on the board or the next time the school choir holds auditions for solos, I hope my children are first in line. Then, with the force of a heavyweight champion’s right hook, I hope defeat knocks them on their asses.

When they come to their senses and regain feeling in their legs, I hope they are proud of their efforts, they learn from the experience, and they try again.

At that point, I’ll know that my children aren’t afraid to take chances and that they are up for a challenge. That’s what they will need to succeed.