Hey Kids (and Parents) Don’t Forget to Fail!

Hi Readers — Those of you who have read my tkshnnhhht
know there’s a chapter called, “Fail! It’s the New Succeed!” The idea being that when we let kids fail, they learn that it’s not the end of the world and this is a great lesson, even though it’s very painful (for parents. And kids, too, I guess.)

So here’s a fantastic Wall Street Journal column by Sue Shellenbarger timed to coincide with all the rejection letters high school seniors are currently receiving from the colleges of their choice. Warren Buffet, Meredith Vieria, Tom Brokaw — they all had their hearts and egos broken by schools that said, “Nay.”  So did Ted Turner. Harold Varmus was turned down by Harvard Med School twice. That was, of course, before the pathetic reject went on to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

The whole piece is great reading for any parent or kid wondering if the world has indeed come to an end. Great reading for me, too, who was turned down by that stupid, stuck-up school in Cambridge, Mass. The same one that also turned down Warren Buffet, who went on to give $12 million to the school that DID take him (Columbia). Life goes on. Revenge is sweet.  — Lenore

30 Responses to Hey Kids (and Parents) Don’t Forget to Fail!

  1. Dot Khan April 6, 2010 at 10:08 am #

    A lot can be said for blazing new paths on one’s own and not following the crowd.
    Its not the end of the world if you aren’t admitted to the College of your dreams (Starfleet Academy) or if one is accepted but does not finish school like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Michael Dell of Dell computers.

  2. Dot Khan April 6, 2010 at 10:11 am #

    To add: Success can have many definitions besides owning a large company including starting a movement like FRK.

  3. Peter Orvetti April 6, 2010 at 10:30 am #

    I got a lot of Bs in high school. My dad used to tell me that if I worked harder, I would get As. I said that while this was true, it would put me on a path where I had to work hard all the time — while if I kept to my Bs, I’d end up working at a pace that would not be too stressful. It worked out for me — though I probably would not have thought so if I’d been a natural D student rather than a B student…

    I used to rail against that Laurie Berkner song wherein she sings, “I try my best every day” — since I DON’T try my best every day. Some days I slack off or phone it in, and hopefully my kids will do the same. Life’s hard enough without perpetually trying…

    To wit: Trying can be trying.

  4. Peter Orvetti April 6, 2010 at 10:31 am #

    P.S.: I applied to 10 schools, was rejected by seven, wait-listed by two, and got into one — which I adored.

  5. Teacher Tom April 6, 2010 at 10:47 am #

    “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes,” Oscar Wilde

    Wilde once filed for bankruptcy, but he was in the good company of people like Rembrandt, Mark Twain, Thomas Paine, Walt Disney (multiple times), Thomas Edison (multiple times), and three former presidents, Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and McKinley.

    When a reporter famously asked Edison how it felt to have failed over a thousand times in his quest to invent the lightbulb, “I didn’t fail a thousand times. The lightbulb was an invention with a thousand steps.”

    But my favorite is the one ascribed to Confucius, “Our greatest glory is not in never failing but in rising every time we fail.”

    I often tell the parents of my students that their job isn’t to keep their kid from falling: it’s to help him up when he does.

  6. Steve April 6, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    There are 2 great rejection-story books I highly recommend:

    (Stories of Famous People Who Persevered) by Darcy Andries



    Of course there are others. What are your favorites?

  7. Katie April 6, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    On a less dramatic note, if my DH hadn’t had an unsuccessful audition we probably wouldn’t have ended up together!

  8. Peter Orvetti April 6, 2010 at 8:13 pm #

    I have a book somewhere called “When I Was Your Age”, listing what well-known people were doing at certain ages. I often pull it out around my birthday to see who had yet to do anything much by my age.

  9. Alexicographer April 6, 2010 at 8:51 pm #

    @Peter Orvetti, perhaps you know the Tom Lehrer line: “When Mozart was my age, he had been dead for 3 years!”

  10. EV April 6, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    When children have the chance to be human, not protected statuaries, they learn to view them selves more realistically. This helps them find out what their limitations are and what limitations others want to place on them. There is a difference. If they don’t learn to separate the two in their elementary years, often they believe what others assign to them. The world is a poorer place for that.

  11. Taylor April 6, 2010 at 9:56 pm #

    While the message is important, I definitely get a chuckle out of the characterization of rejection from Harvard Med as failure, particularly when Columbia Med was the next step. “It’s the end of the world! I didn’t get into Harvard Med, now I’ll have to go to backwoods Columbia!” Oh, I’m chuckling again!

    If Columbia can have a president that went to a “state school” for undergrad, maybe the ol’ Ivy League isn’t as insular as it seems.

    I’m simply relieved it worked out for that poor sucker who went to Carleton College instead of Yale. (Carleton is ranked as the 8th best liberal arts college in U.S.News,etc. What? You’re not concerned about rankings, you say? Then what’s on earth is supposed to make us feel sorry for the guy rejected by Yale and ending up at Carleton?)

    I’m glad my parents never tried to convince me that a specific school held the key to the fulfillment of all my dreams.

  12. Alex April 6, 2010 at 11:25 pm #

    This article makes a very good point….failure is unavoidable, and good for you. However, how will today’s elementary and high school kids deal with their encounters of the above in the real world? As far as they’re concerned, “everybody’s a winner!” and when a desired goal is not reached, it’s “deferred success”. YIKES!!!!

  13. WorkingMom April 6, 2010 at 11:43 pm #

    My Oldest enters high school next year, and they’ve already started the “Got to Be at the Top of the Class to Get Into the Best 4-Year College” nonsense. Having gone to the same school, my question is still unanswered after 25 years – don’t tell me how many kids got into a 4-year college, tell me how many went back for their second year, or even their second semester. How many finished their degree in 4 years?

    Having worked in higher ed for 20+ years, I have seen the results of the unrealistic expectations of today’s high school administrations. The achievement of the student being accepted to an expensive big-name school seems to outweigh, at least for the administration, the disappointment that student will experience if the parents don’t receive aid and don’t want to place their child tens of thousands of dollars in debt early on in life, or the trouble the student might experience transitioning from classes of 25 or less to lecture halls of 200+. Are the high schools of today truly preparing our children to succeed in higher education, or is it all about the name-brands, like with so much else?

  14. HankTheCowdog April 7, 2010 at 1:05 am #

    I grew up in a university town — not a household word, just home to a solid state university. Even though I was an A student in high school & got high SATs, when I started looking around the country at colleges my parents said, “You know, there’s a perfectly good undergraduate institution *right here*.” So that’s where I went.

    In graduate school, I discovered that I was at least as well-prepared (and many times better prepared) than those students who’d gone to fancy $20K-per-year private colleges. College is what you make of it.

  15. adriennebreaux April 7, 2010 at 1:06 am #

    Agreed! I wish I hadn’t been sheltered from failing so long—it was really a great motivator when I finally started failing at a few things and now has helped me succeed a number of times!


  16. Robin April 7, 2010 at 1:09 am #

    Working Mom, I was just thinking today about high school rankings and was thinking it ought to be based not on how many kids get into college, but how many remedial courses they have to take while there.

    College degrees get you your first job, and then it’s your work habits that make you successful or not.

  17. SKL April 7, 2010 at 1:41 am #

    I do try to remind my kids that everyone makes mistakes, and some things take many tries to learn, and the important thing is to learn something every time we try.

    I have one kid who is “too bold” by many standards, and another who is kind of a wuss. The latter is very capable physically, she just doesn’t believe that. How do I get her to embrace “trying” even though it often doesn’t mean “succeeding”? Or is this simply a matter of personality that partly defines who she is?

  18. B. Durbin April 7, 2010 at 3:45 am #

    If you don’t fail, you’re not testing your limits. Now, there’s some places you may not be comfortable doing that— i.e. if you’re scared of heights but you want to push yourself, don’t start by going to the observation deck of the Empire State Building— but don’t ever “pre-fail” yourself. “No, they’d never accept me,” is a bad start. How do you know until you’ve tried?

  19. CLT April 7, 2010 at 4:47 am #

    An important thing that often gets glossed over is that it’s not success if you lied, cheated, and stole to get there. It’s not always about where it get, it’s about who you became while getting there. If you feel like you’re not allowed to fail, you may lose your ethics trying to cover for yourself.

  20. Matt April 7, 2010 at 5:30 am #

    On this very same topic, allow me to recommend a book entitled, “Allow Your Children to Fail If You Want Them To Succeed”, by Dr. Avril P. Beckford.

    Dr. Beckford is a pediatrician in Atlanta, and I had the privilege of hearing her speak a few months ago.


  21. cb April 7, 2010 at 6:50 am #

    A brief, failed early marriage taught me a lot about myself. Who I really was, what I really wanted… sticking with that sort of lowgrade misery would have been a “success” in one way: “look, it’s their 50th anniversary, how sweet” but a “failure” in another.

    Anyway, college is not such a big deal. I couldn’t afford to go right out of high school, so I joined the army. After my stint was up, I went on Uncle Sam’s dime, but it was terrible! I had all these idealized visions about people, um, learning? (how naive!)

    Really, it was a lot of bored-stiff kids who seemed to have the mastered the art of looking simultaneously indifferent and contemptuous. This is what people dream of for their children? Clearly it’s not what the kids dream of for themselves, by and large.

    While my husband insists on socking away what little free income we have into college plans for the kids, I’m not sure the money wouldn’t actually be better-spent on a nice piece of land down by the river.

  22. Stephanie April 7, 2010 at 8:29 am #

    I often tell my kids that failing is just another way to learn. If you don’t fail sometimes, you probably aren’t trying hard enough. They don’t like to hear that when they’re frustrated about something not working out, but it’s a lesson they need to learn.

  23. WorkingMom April 7, 2010 at 9:03 am #

    Robin, you hit it on the nose about the remedial courses. I also used to laugh every spring, when the onslaught of calls started from “big name” schools – students who were failing classes there wanted to retake them over the summer at the cheaper state college!

    A life lesson that should be taught to every graduating senior – a degree is a degree. The only time it matters where you got it from is when the person hiring you is from the same school… or its rival!

  24. Jacqui April 7, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    Nice piece, Lenore.

  25. ebohlman April 7, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    Vannevar Bush, the inventor of hypertext, was in charge of US scientific and engineering efforts during World War II. Some years later, he remarked that the one thing that really struck him about the people whose efforts he coordinated (and they were the cream of the crop) was that very few of them had done their undergraduate work at prestigious research universities: most of them had gone to small liberal arts colleges, and then had no trouble getting into grad school.

    Education critic Alfie Kohn calls the drive, starting in early childhood, to get a kid into Harvard or a similar school “Preparation H”.

    The New Trier high school district, where I live, is considered the top public high school district in the country, and the stereotype is that most of their graduates go to Ivy League schools. In reality, about 10-15 each year (out of about 1000) do. And that’s a much higher percentage than for most districts. There was a “news” piece about 15 years ago dealing with the “heartbreaks” of not getting into Ivy League schools, featuring the disappointment of a student and her parents when all the Ivies turned her down and she had to “settle” for going to the University of Michigan (not an easy school to get into, especially if you’re from out of state!).

  26. Keri April 8, 2010 at 1:07 am #

    In 6th grade I didn’t make cheerleader. Looking back, I don’t know why I thought a short, pudgy girl who couldn’t do a cartwheel was going to make it 🙂 But the school was a district-wide 7th grade school and 75 girls made cheerleading (out of 125 who tried out.) My mom – who also didn’t make cheerleader in school – allowed me to transfer to another school and it turned out to be a MUCH better fit for me. From there, I went to one of the top high schools and on to a very good private liberal arts school. I always joke that *had* I made cheerleader then I probably wouldn’t have received the education experiences that I did.

    On another note, I did go to one of those pricey, prestigious colleges – and while I loved it and enjoyed my time there, I’m not sure it was worth the money. Most of the people I work with – and who make more than me! – didn’t go to those pricey schools and seem to be doing just fine. I don’t think a big name degree is worth much outside of certain industries or cities.

  27. Mike April 8, 2010 at 3:38 am #

    When my teenaged son returns from a day of downhill skiing and proudly tells me he didn’t fall even once, I think to myself (and sometimes tell him, too) that he must not have been pushing himself to improve his speed and skills. It’s only by finding ones’ limits that one can extend them.

  28. Kerrie April 8, 2010 at 11:18 pm #

    I was one of those Type-A personality students, always studying, stressed if I got C+ or lower (B- was acceptable, but I still tried harder), and got accepted to all of my colleges- colleges where I could study to be a teacher, with good field placement programs- plus I was courted by at least one other (for science- I was one of those rare-birds back then, a female who loved science). You know what? I’ve never really been all that ecstatic with my career choices. I was good at what I did, I liked what I did, but never happy enough to continue. Now I’m a stay-at-home mom and looking into going back to college for my masters in a new field I am interested in- anthropology. I took a class at my local community college, couldn’t understand why the “kids” (okay, so I was in the middle of the age range) weren’t as interested as I was, but I was happy- making connections with what I’d learned in college, in life, in literature, in everything. And I want to bring that to my son. Sometimes I think we need to stop and think about the whole process of applying to college in high school; let them get the basic courses done through CC, maybe dabble in some 101s to see what might interest them, THEN apply to Bachelors programs and beyond. Or even go do some civic service- Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, City Year, Outward Bound- something that puts them out into the world. I could go on & on about this but will stop for now. 🙂

  29. Kerrie April 8, 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    Also, this makes me think of the Cirqu du Soleil song, “Let Me Fall”:


    Let me fall
    Let me climb
    There’s a moment when fear
    And dreams must collide
    You can hold me only
    If you too will fall
    Away from all these
    Useless fears and chains
    Let me fall
    If I fall
    There’s no reason
    To miss this one chance
    This perfect moment
    Just let me fall

  30. Anne April 18, 2010 at 8:44 am #

    YEAH WARREN! I too was rejected by Columbia. As an undergrad, at least. By the time I hit grad status I was invaluable, and I’ve even donated a scholarship to my alma mater. Irony?