What if right now across the country, as college acceptance letters are hitting mailboxes and proud, zealous parents are boasting about all the great success that is their high schooler (and sharing it liberally across multiple social media outlets), that there could also be a way for teens who have, or are currently “failing greatly” at something in their lives, to feel some sort of camaraderie?
Is there a way for these “failing” teens to feel something other than complete defeat, shame, or humiliation for doing something that every successful human history has done – that is, FAIL?
Maybe something along the lines of a celebratory exclamation by parents and teens that expresses and/or explains an epic failure, but does so with the intent to normalize failure as something that is both necessary and vital to eventual success? Because our young adults desperately need to learn, experience, and be reminded of the fact that their journey of life is not immune to failing, inasmuch as it seems their peers and everyone else in their lives is doing everything right, we need to ensure that they know that in real life that is very much NOT the case.
Among the population that uses social media on the regular, it’s probably adolescents who commonly take and process everything they see as pure and real truth. It’s actually not their fault, as their undeveloped brains are simply unable to put any kind of long-term perspective on the “now,” or be able to see through the rosy life filter that typically clouds most of what we put on social media. Meaning, everything they see, feel, and experience is pretty much life changing, permanent, and dramatic in their small bubble of life – and that includes failing, which for them is magnified to the umpteenth degree.
They will ultimately spend hours scrolling through heavily curated posts of their peers and seeing not only unblemished skin, but unblemished transcripts, all the while thinking “What is wrong with ME?” To make matters worse, everyone from parents, educators, coaches, and college admissions administrators, have unfortunately made it seem like being “average” is actually “failing.” When was the last time you heard a parent on social media applaud their kid for receiving a “C” in a class? Never, because a “C” is now pretty much a fail, while an “A” has become to norm.
Teens then tend to believe that everyone else is cruising through life easily and without error, meanwhile they’re stranded alone on “fail island” with nary a life boat to be found. The problem is, they don’t realize that it’s exactly the people stranded on “fail island” that are the ones for whom – because of the fact they have to find a solution for getting off, end up with the upper hand in the long run. For some reason, we’ve all neglected to inject that wisdom into today’s young people – that often the greatest success and achievements come to those who have failed (and failed publicly) the most epically.
Luckily, there are a few initiatives underway on colleges that are helping students not only de-stigmatize failure, but to celebrate it as a necessary rite of passage, and a healthy, normal detour on the path to a life of success. The University of Central Arkansas sponsors “Fail Forward Week” every fall, where community fail boards are located across campus and students are encouraged to add their stories of failure to the boards, and take comfort in reading others.
The University of Montana does something similar with its “Best Fail Ever” story board initiative, and even top tiered schools like Vanderbilt and Princeton are offering workshops on the benefits of failing, and are encouraging their faculty to inculcate to their students positive feelings, personal vignettes, and a more normalized view of failing.
But what can you as a parent do to help your teen feel different about failing? One of the easiest things you can do is talk openly about the failings in your own past, and resist the urge to sugarcoat your current and past struggles. Frequently tell stories of huge mistakes and times when you thought your world was in total disarray, and follow it with all the things you learned from those hard times, and how “failing” can be one of the best disguised advantages one can experience in life.