May 20th, 2019
Yesterday there was a general election in Australia and the Labor party was widely predicted to win it. They had gone into the election with an unusually detailed set of policies for social and tax reform. In a shock result they were defeated and of course today analysts are poring over the loss to try to understand what happened.
You may wonder why I’m talking about an election result, particularly at a time when people across the world are expressing disenchantment with politicians. Well it’s because an election gives us a great opportunity to explore loss, defeat, and failure. In the developed world we are very focused on winning and certainly the new government and its supporters will be celebrating but if we don’t pay attention to failures not only are we likely to make the same mistakes again but we miss an opportunity to see that it’s not the wins or the losses that define us but what we do thereafter.
The leader of the ALP made a very gracious speech accepting that his party had lost, in which he acknowledged the hurt and the loss of the vision he had for his country, he congratulated the prime minister on his win and sincerely wished him and his family well and good fortune and good courage in the service of his country and he said that all had a responsibility to respect the result. He thanked many people who had helped in the campaign and he generously stood aside to make room for a new leader to lead the party to a future victory. He was very focused on the idea of success next time.
There is much to learn from this for our children. Children, like adults, experience failure on a daily basis and it is up to us as parents to teach them how to regard losses.
There are some very different approaches to failures. In one approach failure is just not an option. Success is defined by winning or high grades or scores and that is regarded as the goal, if not the only acceptable outcome. The focus is relentlessly on results. When a child comes home from school and we ask “How did the spelling test go?” we mean “what was your score?” The first question we ask after a sporting match is “Did you win?” Asking “what level are you on in the reading scheme?” rather than “did you enjoy that book?” is prioritising their place in the hierarchy over appreciation of stories and words and the truths expressed in them. This tells our children that winning matters, above all else. It prioritises results over enjoyment of the activity and whatever they may learn from participation in that activity. Coming first is more important than collaboration; your friends are your competitors; you have to do what it takes to get an edge over them. It sends the message that I am most interested in the end result. It is your performance that gets my attention and my approval. We unintentionally give the message that our regard is conditional.
When this happens not only can our children experience tremendous pressure and stress but they also do not learn to cope with failure. They do not learn that there is anything noble in defeat. They learn that it is to be avoided. And since it can’t be avoided they may learn to cover it up. They may learn to cheat so that failures can’t be seen or they may not be able to admit failures to themselves, thereby taking away any opportunity to learn from them. They develop a fixed mindset. This is the term coined by Professor Carol Dweck to refer to an attitude to learning characterised by a belief that intelligence is innate and fixed. People with fixed mindsets attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Students who hold a fixed mind-set, are concerned about looking smart with less regard for real learning. They have negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something is a sign of low ability. They think that a person with talent or intelligence does not need to work hard to do well.
In his book Black Box Thinking Matthew Syed explores two different approaches of industries to failures. He looks at how the aviation industry looks at any aircraft failure, especially crashes, very closely to see what can be learned to avoid future problems. He also looked at the medical profession where in surgery in many countries a culture of cover up has developed with a failure to admit mistakes. The different approaches stem from an attitude toward failure.
Sometimes people who find failures difficult don’t cover up their failures but embrace them. Since success gets so much air time they may believe that everyone else is successful, especially if they believe the carefully curated pictures of lives on social media. That makes one’s personal failures doubly difficult since we think we’re the only ones getting it wrong, when in fact failing is the norm. They believe that they are failures and their low self-confidence prevents them from trying anything new or persevering with anything difficult. They believe that they can’t do it. They may protect themselves by living within very narrow parameters and not exposing themselves to failures, whether socially, academically or in professional life. Some protect themselves further by self-criticism –we make sure that there is nothing our critics could tell us that we have not already fully taken on board.
The defeated politician I mentioned at the start modelled a different approach. This is a model of a successful life as one in which we live with purpose and we throw ourselves into projects that give our lives meaning. We do our best and if that doesn’t achieve a goal we acknowledge the hurt and we have the courage to look at it and learn from it. And then we go forward with self-compassion, hope and determination to try again. All of this depends on having a growth mindset where effort is respected and failures not feared.
We can create this model for our children in the way we approach results and talk about failures. Above all else our children need to know that making mistakes (including in day to day interactions with others) is part of being human. We need to model a failure-tolerant attitude that includes:
So go forth and fail with equanimity and with grace!
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