Let ’em fail

Don’t let kids grow up without messing up, advises Max Bean, another person inspired by Paul Tough’s article on grit.

I was reminded of a conversation I once had with a school administrator about the difficulty of hiring effective teachers. “[Something] I’ve realized about recruiting really smart people [is] they’ve never truly struggled with anything,” he told me. “They’re used to working hard, and getting fairly immediate results and teaching doesn’t work like that. So it’s breaking them down mentally.” (It was clear from the context that “really smart people” coming from underprivileged backgrounds did not come with the same drawbacks.)

At 25, after two years teaching at a private school, Bean was hired to teach eighth graders at an inner-city charter school.

Had I had more grit and more experience with failure, I would still have gotten knocked around hard at that school, but I would have learned more quickly from my mistakes and from those around me; I would have had more strength and less fear in the face of my failure; and I would have recovered more quickly.

Years ago, I was on a committee interviewing applicants for a journalism scholarship. One girl was an excellent student, a good reporter, a star athlete, good-looking and confident. She was perfect. One of my colleagues asked her to describe a time she’d tried something and failed. She couldn’t. It hadn’t happened.  We gave her that first experience with failure by not giving her a scholarship. There were other excellent candidates with more grit.

About Joanne


  1. Hmm, generalize much? I know plenty of smart people who were wannabe athletes but didn’t make the team, wannabe musicians but didn’t get a seat in the orchestra, wannabe actors/actresses who didn’t get a role in the school play, even a wannabe beauty queen who just wasn’t quite as pretty as the girl who ultimately won.

    Nobody’s good at everything…

  2. Schools also promote the lack of grit, though. There’s no acceleration, so a bright student may never run into a difficult topic, or even something they see for the first time in school. We no longer offer sewing/cooking/industrial arts/typing, which were the classes that didn’t come easily for me. There is nothing to teach starting over like having to rip out every seam in a project, doing so carefully so that it can be sewn again.

    • Too right, ChemProf. As a 10-year-old making her first skirt for 4-H competition, I had to pick out a messy zipper two times before I did it right. My mother had just finished marking the hem, when I tripped while removing the skirt and ripped not only the zipper and seam, but one whole panel of the skirt. Since it was a flared pattern, I had to start all over with new fabric. I only remember crying a few times in my whole childhood, but that was one of them. Getting the collar right on my first tailored wool suit wasn’t much fun, either.

      Schools promote a lack of grit for anyone by trying to pretend that learning should be fun and immediately relevant and it shouldn’t be either, all of the time. There’s also the idea that no one should ever have their feelings hurt. but it’s part of living and kids should know how to deal with it.

      • I think our culture ALSO encourages a lack of “grit”: things are supposed to be fun and easy; you can win the lottery and make all your dreams come true; if something seems “too hard,” you best just abandon it and try something else.

        I admit to getting deeply annoyed by the “learning should be fun all the time” belief. Learning can be fulfilling and interesting and worthwhile, but it is not necessarily fun. And arguably, worthwhile things sometimes aren’t very fun. My mother always used to say, “The things worth doing are never the easy things.”

        I remember being more frustrated in Metal Shop than in sewing in school. But I had a good teacher who helped me fight through the frustration and do things like overcome the fear of the spot welder.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Friend of ours has a boy who is fourteen. He’s scatterbrained and not particularly responsible, whines and makes excuses. He’s going to high school this year and is looking forward to extracurricular activities. Excluding sports, most of those are run by the kids themselves. They don’t take any crap from their slacker peers.
    Should be interesting, if he doesn’t retreat to his video games.
    Might be an opportunity, if he doesn’t….

  4. This is funny to think about, because off the top of my head I’d have said that I didn’t have any failures to speak of (I sometimes wonder if I haven’t tried enough things) and then started thinking about the scholarships that I didn’t get, the honors band that I didn’t make, the drum major that I wasn’t, the ball teams that I rode the bench for, the colleges that I didn’t get into… None of these were crushing, and actually the more of them I tallied up, the more I realized that what I learned was that being bad at new things wasn’t going to kill me, so why not try them? Most of my adult life is a bit ‘off the beaten path’ from what my graduate advisers would have recommended, but a willingness to have things go badly or change course has led to some wonderful new opportunities.

    • My point in the post that Joanne links to is *not* that smart, privileged kids never experience any failures. Clearly, you can’t get through childhood without encountering various frustrations, things you tried for but failed to obtain. If you hadn’t had any such experiences, you’d be really debilitatingly handicapped. But the scale and depth of the frustration are crucial factors here.

      By age 25, I had gotten low grades in a couple classes, because I slacked off; I’d submitted stories and plays to magazines and festivals that never even wrote back; I’d spent feverish weeks banging my head against famous math problems and (not surprisingly) failed to solve them, etc. These experiences were frustrating to varying degrees, but they were few and far between, and none of them was what I’d call high stakes. In classes that mattered, I got As; there would be other magazines and festivals; and I had no illusions about being a mathematician.

      Teaching at the charter school, I was failing constantly, every day, throughout the day. I was also failing at my job, for which I was being paid a salary; and I was vividly aware that my failure was not only harming me; it was harming the 110 kids whose math educations had been entrusted to me that year. Finally, I was failing despite putting in more time and effort than I’d ever previously put into anything.

      The more you have to overcome, the more experience you have overcoming things. Someone who’s only struggled sporadically in his life and without very serious consequences will not be very resilient. Of course, there’s such a thing as too much frustration, too, but what I’m arguing is that the quantity of frustration and struggle that’s actually healthy for kids is far more than what most middle-class parents are comfortable allowing their children to face.

  5. I am glad that Tough’s article has inspired so much thought and discussion. Success chases its own tail; its meaning depends entirely on the substance of the endeavor. (I recommend G. K. Chesterton’s brilliant essay “The Fallacy of Success.”)

    I have written on the subject of failure here:


    and here:


    and one of the chapters in my book is about success and failure.

  6. This is a huge oversimplification. Following that logic, it would be better to hire the stupid, as they’ve seen more failure and have much more experience with it. These would therefore be the best teachers.

    I don’t think naming a failure in a job interview is a great sign of if someone will be a good teacher. Content knowledge, classroom management, being able to relate to kids, and an ability to do mindless paperwork and pointless administrative requirements seem to be the most required traits for an effective teacher.

  7. I don’t think you need to hire stupid people to find someone who’s struggled hard in life. You just need someone who hasn’t constantly been put in environments that were safe and easy. That can be a smart, privileged person who’s been out in the world for a while, or it can be a smart person from a rough background, or it can be a not so brilliant person who, through will and discipline, has pushed himself to achieve highly (Richard Feynman’s IQ was only 125). For that matter, it could be a young, smart, privileged person who through whatever unusual circumstances has been forced to develop grit. Sure, content knowledge, patience, and people skills are important, but so are resilience, grit, and persistence.

  8. I think that the point I was trying to make in my post above is that what I learned from failure was that trying something new wouldn’t kill you, it wasn’t that horrible to fail. I don’t think that there’s an optimum amount of failure that will produce ‘grit’ because people are different. I know somebody who avoids failure almost to the extent of avoiding trying new things. Their childhood successes were praised and failure was to be avoided…and that’s stuck with them.

    I moved to a small-town high school where it was apparently determined sometime in elementary school who would be the valedictorian, etc. I was marked down for using words that were too big in my compositions. I put up with it for 4 years, and it was extremely frustrating. I figured out what I needed to do to get the highest grade that I would be given and marked time until graduation. I went to college and my grades went up, and I went on to get a PhD (which is more about perseverance than intelligence).

    When I made the comment in the first post that I hadn’t had any failures or struggles, I think what I was referring to was the temperament difference that causes me to see my the missed awards and even 4 years of frustration as ‘just life’ while the new-situation-avoider sees every badly played note to be a catastrophe. Is that grit or optimism or something else?

  9. Gee, I did badly in class after class at MIT, and with one class to go, failed measure theory, preventing my graduation. I managed eventually, and left for my first real job, where I made plenty of mistakes. None of which turned me into a good teacher for inner city youth.

    Experience with failure is not the same as meeting adversity and overcoming it. In fact, for most people, experience with failure leads them to more failure. For many, it leads them to quit. For others, it leads them to increasingly self destructive behaviors.

    What you want are people who are resilient. Failure *tests* resilience. But failure does not *teach* resilience.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    If you’ve never been in a position where you’ve failed, you don’t think you can fail. You might end up POTUS. Then what?

    I didn’t get as far in various endeavors as I would have liked, but that amounted to disappointment. Failures with serious or catastrophic results have been pretty rare for me, luckily.

    Perhaps a middle ground; enough failure to train you to think a hundred times about whether and how–in advance–before undertaking something. Not so much failure that you consider yourself a failure before starting out.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Oh, yeah. Tell a hiring committee about a failure? A struggle, maybe. An obstacle overcome after a struggle.
    Failure? Right.

  12. Allison’s point is good: that failure by itself doesn’t teach resilience; it tests resilience.

    It isn’t only grit that’s at stake. If interpreted correctly, failure can keep a person’s arrogance at bay. And once a person accepts that failures happen, he or she will undertake things that might have seemed daunting before. It seems less awful to go through a long period without stellar results. There might even be something pleasant to it: the opportunity to work on something without worrying about the instant product.

    But all of this depends on interpreting failure properly, and this is not easy. It goes beyond grit; it is more than just trying again and again. It is the ability to discern what went wrong and what didn’t, what deserves continued effort and what doesn’t.

    Philip N. Johnson-Laird has a fascinating chapter on the Wright brothers in his book How We Reason. He argues that what set them apart from their rivals was not perseverance (some of their contemporaries had that same quality and didn’t do so well) but their ability to analyze what went wrong and improve upon their experiments.

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Failure probably doesn’t teach resilience, but you can’t build the quality of resilience without opportunities to get smacked around a little.

    And I do think that you have to build resilience — otherwise I have to accept that it’s just a magical gift that some people have and others don’t. And I don’t want to accept that.

    The key, I think, is that one must fail at something and then later succeed at that same thing (or some very closely related re-tasking of the same thing). THAT will help build resilience, which is really just the habit of “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again.” It’s not teaching; one can no more teach resilience than one can teach curiousity. But it is a type of conditioning, or habituation.

    So when you are in a class, and you ask your students to try their hand at something — even if you KNOW that they will crash and burn the first, maybe the second, possibly the third time — it’s incumbent upon you as a the instructor to make sure that you are not asking them to perform something of which they are genuinely incapable. Otherwise there is no success, no demonstration of the value of the habit of resilience.

    And that, of course, means knowing each your students. Which is sort of impossible if you have 200 of them every 15 weeks.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    As so many times, I recall the military training. A good many times, the first effort failed but the plan was that, eventually, most guys would succeed. The degree of difficulty determined the proportion of guys who made it the second time, or the third time. Some schools, Ranger School, wanted to pare off the unqualified, defining qualified in some incredible terms. Jump school, not so much, but some.
    The point in most of the more basic training is that practically everybody–even you half-wit maggots–can do this if I kick your butt around the parade ground. That builds resilience. Further on, as in OCS, you learn resilience by perseverance, but still, half the guys were busted out. They didn’t learn resilience, but that wasn’t the Army’s goal.
    But, yeah, in group endeavors, you have to figure how many of the folks you want to flunk, or allow to flunk, or, getting touchy-feely here, allow to flunk themselves. If everybody passes, it wasn’t valuable enough.