I was catching up on my reading this summer and dug out a few recent issues of the Harvard Business Review. I have always thought HBR is a trailing indicator of the currency of ideas in the workplace. I am still a faithful reader but am also aware that my subscription is more likely to provide insight on what is already happening rather than foresight as to what might happen next.
So, when the May, 2016, issue arrived with a cover story entitled, “How to Really Learn from Failure,” I knew our conversation about failure had gone mainstream. (In keeping with HBR’s ability to spot a trend after it has fully matured into a routine daily reality, the very next issue in June carried a cover story entitled, “Managing the 24/7 Workplace.”) A quick search on Amazon confirmed the buzz around failure. Multiple books suggest it is the key to success and one even tells us that it is a “gift” that parents can give their children.
“XBox for your birthday? How about failure instead?”
I suspect few people predicted that “failure” would become a 21st century buzzword. Somewhere along the path to a fully digital and globalized economy, we moved from failure being a function of miscalculation and mistake – and therefore an opportunity to correct defects the next time around – to failure serving as evidence of a healthy attitude toward risk. In a world that demands a nimble approach to change, risk avoidance suddenly has all the appealing qualities of a terminal disease. Experiment, iterate, innovate – success will belong not to the technocrat but to the mad scientist masquerading as a humble manager.
The failure phenomenon is an interesting instance of a business buzzword with a conflicted relationship to the subtle and overt messages parents hear daily. The technological revolution that accelerated the development of our globalized economy also put parents on notice: your kid is competing with every other smart kid in the world now. We are conditioned to believe that our children’s margin for error is thinner than ours ever was and that his or her vulnerability to missing out on a plus-sized version of the American Dream is real. The message: Don’t mess this up. Hone your child’s competitive instincts in those unassigned minutes of each day. Be clear that the best choices are those that provide access to more of the best choices. Stay focused on outcomes rather than process. See threat before opportunity and value a script over improvisation. Do your research and be ready to advocate. Risk-taking may be a mandate for your professional life but it has no place in childrearing.
The problem with this relentless pressure on parents is not only that it runs counter to the failure movement, but it also conflicts with the current most-favored ideas from the parenting advice business. Its all about developing resilience, grit, hardiness, and perseverance for today’s kids. The last decade has seen a barrage of research and writing across all of these dimensions of how humans develop the ability to bounce back and adapt in the face of adversity. Perspectives range from understanding these capacities as functions of character to more biological explanations of how neural networks in the brain respond to and recover from setbacks. But make no mistake: in every theory, resilience takes root in the valley, not on the mountaintop. Kids who are protected from falling down will not learn how to get back up.
Despite the buzz around failure and resilience, parents often surrender to the pressure to engineer their kids’ lives. The “threat” end of the “threat/opportunity” continuum is often what we filter for in our news and in the stories of our children’s peers, whether their friends or cautionary tales from afar. The pattern is sufficiently well-established to have its own handles. Helicopter parenting is the most common, Black Hawk parenting a step beyond, with Fighter Jet Escort parenting being a special category. It is surely no coincidence that the rise of this model for raising children corresponds to the epidemic of anxiety and depression that has rampaged through achievement-oriented American neighborhoods.
There is no question that parents are caught in a dilemma. The competition does, in fact, seem stiffer and the world generally less forgiving. And the peer pressure from fellow parents – relentless. There are no easy answers or secret formulas but it can be helpful to find and keep a centering thought. And for that, we turn from business and psychology to philosophy.
In the middle of the 19th century, Soren Kierkegaard, a Christian Dane considered to be the first existentialist philosopher, wrote Fear and Trembling, a meditation on the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac from the Book of Genesis. In the midst of imagining the inner – but unwritten – experience of this father and son, Kierkegaard observed the following:
“Whatever the one generation may learn from the other, that which is genuinely human no generation learns from the foregoing…Thus no generation has learned from another to love, no generation begins at any other point than at the beginning, no generation has a shorter task assigned to it than had the previous generation.”
We don’t find Kierkegaard quoted too often in HBR or parenting advice bestsellers but he illuminates a truth worthy of reflection. On the matters that matter – “that which is genuinely human” – there is nowhere to begin but at the beginning. No accelerated classes, no skipping to the main point. “No generation learns the essentially human from a previous one.” Being a good parent is one of these essentially human experiences and Kierkegaard is right – there is nowhere to begin to sort out its conundrums and mysteries but at the beginning.
Kierkegaard’s wisdom also leads us to sort out the difference between the “essentially human” and “everything else” when we think about our children. Assigning the overwhelming portion of our interest and concern to the former rather than the latter is our mandate. Like us, our children begin at the beginning building those virtues that are not easily learned on a tight schedule: empathy, integrity, being a good friend, serving something larger than oneself. The challenge of our times is to be there with them; not to build a resume but to find a path – from the beginning – to purpose and fulfillment. Perhaps then, failure and resilience and the ambient anxiety that characterizes life in 2016, will give way to something more deeply satisfying.