Here’s an idea from the fascinating book* that I’m currently: the most reliable factor associated with success is prior success, not prior failure. Author Alfie Kohn argues, mere exposure to failure doesn’t teach us much about bouncing back from failure (or resilience), but it is rather much more important that children are guided through an experience of failure. He writes:

“To teach children how to handle a fire emergency, we talk to them about the dangers of smoke inhalation and advise them where to go when the alarm sounds. We don’t actually set them on fire.”

Importantly, Kohn points out that failure is often accompanied by defeat. In our increasingly competitive world, we often frame success not only as a standard that we hold ourselves to, but rather, a contest in which we compete with others for. Not only do we have to perform well, but we are to perform better than others. Defeat comes from feeling like the loser and generally does not encourage resilience. In treating everything like a contest, we fail to see that many things in life is not a zero-sum game and forego developing collaborative skills and important pro-social qualities like empathy.

It turns out that our perspective on failure is all-important to how we respond to failure. If we approach difficult tasks with the notion that failure is a part of learning and mastering a new skill, we are less likely to feel defeated when we fail. Conversely, if we take failures personally, we begin to believe that we are incapable and that any success we experience is a matter of good luck. It turns out that these subtle differences in views determine our attitudes toward failure.

I always thought of myself as a good learner. But some of the ideas in this book really put that thought to the test. It’s a thought provoking read because it qualifies many things I thought I believed in and challenges some things that I hold as core values in a way that is making me reconsider those values. I’m still digesting what I’ve read and hope to write about this book further.

*Alfie Kohn’s The Myth of the Spoiled Child