The Failure Myth

DanielsHere is an excerpt from an article written by Aubrey Daniels for Talent Management magazine. To read the complete article, check out all the resources, and sign up for a free subscription to the TM and/or Chief Learning Officer magazines published by MedfiaTec, please click here.

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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.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Aubrey C. Daniels is a thought leader and an internationally recognized expert on management, leadership and workplace issues who is considered an authority on human behavior in the workplace. Trained as a psychologist and specializing in the science of behavior analysis, Daniels is the author of Bringing Out the Best in People and five other business books. As chairman of his consulting firm, Aubrey Daniels International, he and his staff help organizations employ the timeless principles of behavioral science to re-energize the workplace, optimize performance and achieve lasting results. He can be reached at his firm.

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