Why We Need to Fail

When I heard Paul Tough speak about his most recent work as an education reporter last week, I was skeptical; he was ambitiously trying to address the [contrite] issue of historically low academic performance among poor, non-white Americans. The most common explanation for this has mainly centered around the culture of poor Americans of color (black and hispanic, generally); that these children’s parents are less invested in their schooling, that these groups are lazier, and for these reasons, no amount of money would improve test scores in “failing” schools anyway, so why bother? Paul Tough’s last book, Whatever it Takes, chronicled the efforts of programs targeting parenting practices of low-income families, believed to be the leading cause of students’ academic failure, and I had no reason to believe he would go down another path this time.

But he did, and he referenced an organization, the Center for Youth Wellness (CYW) in San Francisco, that studies the effects of chronic stress on children’s brains and learning. As we often discussed in education classes in college, and as CYW exposed in its research, it is actually the constant, “toxic” stress of poverty that has a serious, negative effect on developing brains, and on learning. Specifically, Tough noted that toxic stress affects the skills of concentration and attention, both obviously crucial for school.

Tough then went on to say that he’d recently spoken with the school headmaster of Riverdale, a wealthy and elite private school in the Bronx, NY, who had observed a contrasting phenomenon in his privileged (and often rich, white) students; that children attending the best private schools, conditioned to work hard and churn out perfect test scores and go to college, often lacked experiences with adversity that would help them grow into empathetic, humble, and socially conscious adults.

Tough concluded that a stable source of love and care from parents, along with a healthy dose of adversity, were the two things that prepared children to become great students and even greater citizens beyond the confines of any school campus. Perhaps children from poor backgrounds experience too much adversity, but children from rich, sheltered backgrounds might experience too little. And pain, adversity, and experience with failure are essential to building strength of character and an unshakable resilience that will lead you to far greater accomplishments than you could have otherwise achieved.

JK Rowling speaks of this same exact revelation in her Harvard commencement address from 2008. Talking about her life at age 28, when she was divorced, jobless, and left with a small child, she shamelessly tells the audience she was “the biggest failure she knew.” But here’s the twist: very soon after she had hit rock bottom, she knew: “I was set free. Because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea…”

(The rest of that quote probably reads: “…and then I went on to write the world-famous Harry Potter series and become a multi-billionaire and win the adoration of trillions of people around the world. No big deal.”)

I swear, though, what she speaks of is at least partially true. This past spring, when I lost the Fulbright after hoping and dreaming and crying and willing myself to win for a whole 9 months, I was still standing perfectly intact. Intact. The thing that I feared would break me the most, at that [frivolous and limited] point in my life, came true, and instead of destroying me, it inspired me to start this blog. JK Rowling’s experiences align with mine and with Dr. Kelly Flanagan’s post, “(What Your Dentist Knows) About the Secret to Life”, which you can find here.

We humans tend to build our lives around comfort, security, and painlessness. But life is not entirely in anyone’s control, and is difficult, uncomfortable, and painful at times. Instead of running from adversity, failure, and the pain of adversity and failure, we should face it head on, like Kelly’s son faced the hose spray, unattached to anything. With adversity, we gain knowledge about ourselves and our character, we become more empathetic with our fellow human beings, and we regain control from our fears. As JK Rowling says in her address, “the knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”

In a nutshell: through failure, you gain security and freedom, allowing you to pursue your dreams, unfettered.