The Failure Myth

What’s the truth about failure, persistence and grit? Hint: It’s not what you read.

Failure and grit have become the latest buzz words in career and educational success stories. Many stories and blogs over the last year have touted the value of failure.

Who are they kidding? Why would any teacher or manager want people to fail? If you reward failure, you are sending the message: Don’t try very hard; it’s OK to make a half-hearted attempt.

The latest case in point is an NPR article that relates grit to education.

In reading it, you get the idea that it is not known how to teach persistence. Several schools are trying, but in my opinion few are likely to succeed because they think the answer is in making subject mastery hard, and to ease the pain, they reward failure. The NPR story ends with a paragraph about a student from a school that is trying to make students “grittier.” The article concludes: “As they say around here … the secret to success is failure.” Boy, is that wrong-headed! It reminds me of an interview with the late comedian and actor Andy Griffith, who was asked if growing up poor had contributed to his sense of humor. His reply, “No doubt it did, but it was a hell of a way to learn to be funny.” Having to fail in order to learn persistence is a hell of a way to succeed.

The other poster child of the success coaches is grit. So what the heck is grit? As defined by its most prominent proponent, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, it’s “the tendency to sustain perseverance and passion for challenging long-term goals.” Grit has been greeted with a degree of breathless enthusiasm unmatched since, well, the last social-science craze. You would think it had just been invented.

Yet, how to teach persistence, resilience and grit has been known for almost 100 years. Consider what John B. Watson had to say about it in 1930: “The formation of early work habits in youth, of working longer hours than others, of practicing more intensively than others, is probably the most reasonable explanation we have today not only for success in any line, but even for genius.”

Those who don’t understand the science of behavior often resort to methods that are the exact opposite of what’s known to be effective. Some schools think we need to make things difficult to teach persistence. Actually, it is not about how difficult a subject is but about the reinforcement received for sticking to a project or task.

To get some real world understanding of this, watch an episode of “Naked and Afraid,” a reality survival show. Contestants are left in the harshest conditions — imagine being dropped into the Amazon jungle with no clothes, food or water. Yet they never complain of the task being too hard, although they have complained about mosquitoes. Too bad that academics confuse “hard” with angst and failure when we know that when accompanied with reinforcement, “hard” just makes the accomplishment all the more reinforcing and memorable. To a distance runner, breaking into a sweat is a positive reinforcer since you are doing yourself some good.

We know how to teach persistence, resilience, grit, passion and creativity. Remember, “If at first you don’t succeed …” You know the ending to this. That saying is not about failing; it is about success. When positive reinforcement is embedded in the trying, hard becomes easier, exciting and exhilarating. Persistence is an outcome of reinforcement delivered for an accomplishment of small steps on the way to some final success. Hard and rewarding should go together, but all too often they do not … neither in our educational system nor in the workplace. And that’s what drives me crazy!