I’ve read a lot recently on the subject of failure – and how we need to learn how to fail. Most of this conversation has been in the context of raising children. In other words, we can’t just hand out participation ribbons to kids when they don’t win. They have to cry and have tantrums. They have to learn how to fail, in order to learn how to win. We need some adversity to thrive.
I’m reading a great book called The Confidence Code by journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, which looks at the science and art of self-assurance in women and asks whether women are wired to be less confident than men. Inevitably, the issue of nature versus nurture comes into it. There is a lot of evidence that there are biological reasons for different behavior patterns, but apparently we can also learn how to be confident – and part of that education is through experiencing adversity, taking risks, learning to fail.
Kay and Shipman spoke to women who walked to and from school alone at age 4 1/2 or babysat their younger siblings at 4 – women who credit this type of tough love for helping them develop confidence. While they don’t advocate exposing toddlers to unnecessary trauma, they do suggest that ‘nurture’ needs to toughen up.
They cite the story of Elaine Chao, US Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush, whose family fled China when she was a child.
When Elaine arrived in Queens at the age of eight, speaking not a word of English, she entered third grade at the local school. It was a total immersion into a set of unsympathetic classmates. ‘It was 1961 and America was not as diverse as it is now. It was basically black and white.’ As a non-English-speaking Chinese girl, she was a tantalizing target to tease…
She couldn’t figure out how to fit in at school, and at home, things were tough. There was little money and there were no other relatives; the family lived a very isolated life. As the oldest, Elaine was expected to work hard not just for herself but also to help lift up her five sisters. She credits those days for the confidence she has now. ‘I’m not sure a nurturing environment is always good. Some adversity, if it doesn’t break you, does make you stronger.’
It’s a bit of a cliche (Nietzsche, Kelly Clarkson…), but I think there is truth in what Chao is saying.
While I grew up feeling different from most people I knew, I had a financially and emotionally comfortable childhood. My father didn’t have the same resources as a child, growing up in the working-class tenements of Glasgow. He was the first in his family to go to university. I used to tell him that I envied him having something to push against. Luckily (yes, luckily), I’ve now been through enough adversity in my own life to have things to push against – and I can feel the difference. I wouldn’t wish my experiences on anyone, but I know I have grown because of them.
It’s interesting to flip the idea of ‘disadvantage’ over and look at its belly. When you live in bubble-wrapped privilege, you don’t learn how to overcome obstacles. When you have to overcome adversity, you have something to work with. Struggling isn’t fun, failing isn’t fun. But apparently, being too comfortable isn’t good for us either. Comfort can make us complacent. We need adversity in order to succeed. And while adversity isn’t necessarily failure, failure is a form of adversity. By failing, we hopefully learn to get up and try again. To try harder.
I’m trying to resist fixing everything for my daughter. She’s experienced adversity in watching her parents divorce. While I didn’t share all the gory details with her, I didn’t sugarcoat the experience either. Life can really suck, but we can bounce back. I’m also trying not to fuss when she fails a math test. Instead I tell her about the time that my A’ Level history teacher failed me. I was so used to achieving without much effort, I was stunned into action. I got my head down and worked – and got the ‘A’ she told me I was capable of. An ‘A’ I enjoyed so much more.
Adversity is a huge part of the experience of being an Other. You’ve had to struggle with standing out – for your ethnic background, for your gender identity, for your big nose or your broken home. And not because of mistakes you’ve made, not because of failure. It’s not an easy experience to go through. In fact, it can be painful as hell at times.
But it can bring benefits. Once you embrace your difference, it can become your greatest asset or strength. You’ve been teased, you’ve been bullied, you’ve doubted yourself. You’ve felt like a failure, even if you’re not one, for things that are beyond your control. So, if you do take risks and make mistakes from time to time, you know you’ll most likely survive.
You may even thrive.