What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?

That’s the title of a long, punishingly dull article at the New York Times about wacky Headmaster Dominic Randolph. Randolph doesn’t seem to understand the most basic role of a headmaster, which is to educate children. If your kid has a higher IQ than normal, the last place you should want him would be in a school where he limits homework and doesn’t have Advancement Placement Classes. That being said, he is on to something when he talks about failure and character.

For the headmaster of an intensely competitive school, Randolph, who is 49, is surprisingly skeptical about many of the basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale; he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign; and he says that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”

“Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

…One eighth-grade girl I asked about character said that for her and her friends, the biggest issue was inclusion – who was invited to whose bat mitzvah; who was being shunned on Facebook. Character, as far as I could tell, was being defined at Riverdale mostly in terms of helping other people – or at least not hurting their feelings.

Randolph told me that he had concerns about a character program that comprised only those kind of nice-guy values. “The danger with character is if you just revert to these general terms – respect, honesty, tolerance – it seems really vague,” he said. “If I stand in front of the kids and just say, ‘It’s really important for you to respect each other,’ I think they glaze over. But if you say, ‘Well, actually you need to exhibit self-control,’ or you explain the value of social intelligence – this will help you collaborate more effectively – then it seems a bit more tangible.”

… As Fierst put it: “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents. We try to talk to parents about having to sort of make it O.K. for there to be challenge, because that’s where learning happens.”

We live in the “everybody gets a trophy,” protect their self-esteem at all costs, don’t keep score at the basketball game, call for the government to fix every problem in your life age. Then we wonder why so many people are terrified to take responsibility for their own lives. We wonder why they embrace the pseudo-morality of tolerance, diversity, and “not being mean,” while eschewing real morality, which actually requires making tough, sometimes unpleasant choices. We wonder why they blame everyone else except themselves when things go wrong, but what else would they do? They’ve been told all their lives that they’re special, without ever doing anything special. They’ve been told that they’re wonderful, without ever being wonderful. So when they inevitably hit a rough patch, they’re unprepared for the bumps and assume that if they’re such unique little human flowers, it must be someone else’s fault.

The truth is that it’s GOOD for children to want things that they don’t get. It’s good for them to compete and lose. It’s good for them to fail. You want to teach someone the value of money? The best way to do it is for him to need it and not be able to get his hands on any cash. You want to prepare people for adversity? The best way for them to do that is to experience it. People who are shielded from the world never fully grow up.

Ask yourself this question and answer it honestly. There are two kids. One spends his entire life eating at the school lunch program, wolfing down food bought with food stamps, watching his parents collect welfare, and living in government housing. Now, imagine a kid growing up in a family that’s just as poor that would rather starve than suckle at the teat of the government; so they refuse to take handouts. Which of those two kids is more likely to stay poor after he’s an adult? Which of those two kids is likely to be a harder worker? Which of those two kids is more likely to be independent, self-reliant, and genuinely successful? If you don’t know the answer to that question, you’re probably one of the “everybody gets a trophy” people from the first paragraph.

The truth of the matter is that “life’s a b*tch” isn’t just a slogan from a t-shirt; it’s what the world is like — and that’s coming from a happy, healthy, optimistic, self-employed person with a positive outlook on life. That’s not to say life isn’t good — it is. But, it’s a smashmouth game. Life is having your heart broken into a thousand pieces by a girl you’re head-over-heels in love with. It’s watching things fall apart with friends you’d take a bullet for despite your best efforts. It’s going to a job that you hate day-in-and-day-out because you need the money. It’s watching those you love die and missing them. It’s falling short, being rejected, being afraid, missing people, and wishing you could change things that no one short of God has the power to change. I don’t care how pretty you are, who your daddy is, how fortunate you’ve been, or how charmed your life appears on the outside, if you’re middle-aged, chances are you’ve experienced most if not all of these things.

That’s life. Don’t be afraid to fail at a few things while you’re doing it. In the end, your life will be better because of it.

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