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The Courage to Fail
And the Belief that One Can Succeed

What made Thomas Edison so remarkable was not that he had a high IQ nor that he scored above average on an achievement test. Edison’s real genius was he had the courage to fail and believed he would ultimately succeed. Edison tried countless materials as filaments in the creation of the light bulb, rejecting those that failed until he found a filament that worked. Edison learned as much from his failures as he did from his successes.

 From the title of Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, the first thought might be to anticipate math and reading teaching strategies, maybe a few study skills thrown in. But Tough’s book is all about character.

In my previous entry, I examined the theory of grit by psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth.  Grit is our ability to work hard and persevere, and it may be a better predictor of future academic success than IQ, test scores or grade point averages. Tough incorporates all of Duckworth’s theories and adds additional layers of understand.

Tough points to the work of James Heckman. Heckman examined the future academic and professional success of students who achieved their high school diploma through the alternative GED program rather than through the traditional four year classroom route. Heckman found that GED and traditional high school graduates were fairly equal academically. But when it came to completing college or doing well professionally, GED graduates did no better than high school dropouts.

What Heckman discovered was that GED graduates did poorly, not because they lacked the academic skills, but because they lack the very skills that made them possible high school dropouts in the first place. They lacked such skills such as remaining focused, sticking with a project and following through to the end.

Tough concentrates on the role parents play in the nurturing process. Children with a less nurturing environment are defeated by failure and don’t know how to pick themselves up and try again. Often children from upper income families have “helicopter” parents who never allow their children to experience failure. These children either choose safe careers and never accomplish anything substantial or are totally lost if failure lands on their doorstep.

For Tough, experiencing failure is almost a prerequisite for ultimately achieving success. He points to Steve Jobs who believed that one of his greatest learning experiences was being fired from Apple Computers.

But failure can also be debilitating. Psychologist Carol Dweck from Stanford University believes we must educate children so that they can pick themselves up and move ahead. Just by telling children that their IQ is not fixed, that they can become smarter no matter what their present test scores or grades say is an extremely powerful motivator.

Some of these concepts were outlined in the best-selling book, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell just a few years ago. It is hard work more than raw talent that ultimately matters in success, says Gladwell.

Character development raises some fundamental issues in how to improve education. Perhaps we are worrying too much on how to spoon-feed math and reading concepts to our children. Maybe we are spending too much time poring over ACT and NAEP scores when the real reason many children don’t go on to finish college has little to do with their academic abilities. The real reason they don’t succeed is that they are afraid of failure, and when they do fail, they don’t know how to pick themselves up and try again.

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