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posted: 10/12/2017 10:34 AM

How to know when failure can lead to success

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It's become a mantra of modern management theory. To succeed, organizations must encourage their employees to take risks, must tolerate their failures, and must use each such instance as an opportunity to learn how better to pursue the organization's mission and vision.

"But how big a risk, how many failures, and what lesson?" the CEO of a mid-size company asked me recently. "If you're not careful, you can learn a lesson but lose your company."

This conversation came to mind when a parent shared with me her struggle to allow her 10-year-old son to fail in school. They had worked their way through various strategies for assisting a student his age -- helped him with his organizational skills, taught him study skills, provided tutoring, rewarded him for doing his work, and on and on.

They had even run him through a battery of tests to make sure that there wasn't some deeper, hidden barrier to his success in school.

What it seemed to come down to more than anything was that he simply didn't want to do school. And who could blame him, really?

No matter how good a school he went to, how talented his teachers were, how many resources like computers or science labs or art rooms were available, how many extracurricular activities he could be involved in, going to school ultimately involves doing what someone else tells you to, when they tell you to, and how they tell you to. And, let's face it, learning can be hard.

Now, this school also had a well-thought-out disciplinary process for students who just didn't want to work. The problem was that every time this particular young man's behavior made him eligible for this process, his mother rescued him.

She'd sit down with him and plead with him to do his homework, or even do it for him, or call a teacher and negotiate a deal for him. She just couldn't risk the consequences of his failing.

We're back to how big a risk, how many failures, and what lesson.

The most obvious risk seemed to be whether he'd wind up in after-school detention or "Saturday school" because of his poor grades. That would certainly inconvenience the child as well as the family. A related risk was any potential negative impact this might have on his self-esteem.

On the other hand, since he'd never been allowed to fail in school, and since he'd experienced a number of successes in other parts of his life (athletics, music, etc.), it was hard to see how this particular failure was somehow one too many. It wasn't like he had a history of failures to consider.

So what, really, did he need to learn? Well, first, he probably needed to unlearn any lessons having to do with his power to defy authority or with his mother's willingness to always rescue him.

Or, to put it another way, he needed to learn that there are a lot of times in life that you do have to do what you don't particularly want to do. Second, he needed to learn to rescue himself. And it was better he learned this sooner rather than later.

The next lesson he needed to learn had to do with the joy of learning. Learning -- even if, especially if, it comes hard -- can give us a sense of mastery and accomplishment. If he'd just stop fighting it so hard, he might even enjoy learning at times.

Finally, there was some very concrete knowledge he needed to learn if he was to progress in school. And it was important that he didn't get so far behind that he'd have to struggle too much to catch up. A whole lifetime of learning would build on what he learned now.

Put that way, his mother decided, the biggest risk, the worst failure, the most erroneous lesson her son could learn came with her continuing to protect him from the consequences of his behavior. It might not be easy, but it was time for him to fail. Then he could learn to succeed.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."

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