Two new books — The Gift of Failure, by Jessica Lahey, and Rising Strong, by Brene Brown — take up the merits of making mistakes and being vulnerable.
Lahey’s book, targeted toward parents, teachers, and coaches, reminds us that we learned best when we struggled through challenges, and that our children and students need to be strong enough to do the same. Brown’s book takes the topic in a slightly different direction, arguing that we grow in significant ways when we act without any guarantee of results, when we allow ourselves to be open to the possibility that we may stumble or never achieve what we set out to.
Both of these books are about coping with discomfort, about reckoning what we hope for with what we have, and I think most adults quickly recognize the merits of their wisdom. But do young people relate? I often hear from my own daughter and some of my students that we (adults) don’t understand how much pressure they feel to never fail, to always be perfect, and to always hew as close to the lines as possible.
I try to really listen when I hear this, and I think back to when I was teaching American Literature. One of the best days of the year was when I took my students outside to lie in the grass and read or reflect on Thoreau’s Walden. I told them they could get ahead on the homework or lie in the grass and do nothing. It was ok to “waste” an hour if that was what they wanted to do, because Thoreau “wasted” two years and two days just living, observing, and writing, and look what he had to show for it.
Inevitably, some students got down to work and worked for the entire hour. Some stared at the sky, some fell asleep. But all reported a very good time and begged to do it again, which I always meant to do, but never did. Today, I thought about how much good these kinds of low stakes experiences can do in terms of showing young people what we mean when we say that failing and taking risks is not only ok, but sometimes even fun.