The Power of Failure

The character building pillars of the Gilman boys school (K-12) in Baltimore, MD focus on Honor. Image Source:

Just got back from my first couple of days away since our ‘Great Recession’ started and came across an article/interview in the Canadian national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. The interview titled ‘Why kids need to fail to succeed in school’ by Margaret Wente is with the author of a book titled ‘How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character’. In the interview with the books author Paul Tough, it is suggested that part of the problem with education today is that it does not embrace and prepare students better for failure.

An additional part of failure is learning from it and being able to resist giving up. As I have learned in my work in the creativity and innovation field failure is perspective.  Thomas Edison was asked what it felt like to fail 50,000 times before he made the lightbulb.  His answer was that he never failed, because he now knows 50,000 ways not to make a lightbulb.

Mr Tough points out that what he is finding is that certain personality characteristic have an ability to predict success in school and in life.  He lists these characteristics as persistence, perseverance, stick-to-itiveness, self-control, passion and grit. The interview goes on to explore the authors belief that another part of what is missing in todays education is character development. In the interview he states:

        I think there is a real difference between developing self-esteem and developing character, and in the past few decades we’ve become confused about that. Yes, if you want to develop kids’ self-esteem, the best way to do it is to praise everything they do and make excuses for their failures.
       But if you want to develop their character, you do almost the opposite: You let them fail and don’t hide their failures from them or from anybody else – not to make them feel lousy about themselves, but to give them the tools to succeed next time.
       I think in some ways we know this, because lots of us have had that experience with a teacher or a coach or a music tutor; the ones that we remember are the ones who were tough on us, not mean or belittling, but the ones who said, “No, this isn’t good enough. You can do better.” That’s an incredibly powerful message for a kid to hear. It’s not wounding. Just looking at my own three-year-old and remembering my own experiences, when kids feel like they’ve got a teacher or a parent really on their side, then I think they’re very much willing to hear some very tough messages.

All in all an interesting interview and perspective. I have bought the book now and will probably write a bit more about Mr Tough’s work in the future.


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Filed under Improved Learning, My Experiences, Parenting

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