Today, I am editing my book. I submit it to the publisher on October 1st.
So, I wanted to take a break from my “The Ten Most Important Things We’ve Done In Our Business” series to share an excerpt from my upcoming book Unsuited
My book is about work, and how we find, and do, the type of work that is meaningful to us and brings out our passions.
Here is a excerpt from Chapter 4, Experimentation and the Virtue of Failure:
Re-Discovering The Virtue Of Failure
I recently visited my seven-year-old son’s elementary school and was amazed by the technology in the classroom. It was nothing like my elementary experience – his classroom was filled with laptops, smart boards, interactive computer assisted devices and other gadgets. It was something that I couldn’t even imagine when I was seven. I can recall with great curiosity the day I saw my first Atari game console. I used to get so excited to go to my cousin’s house because he had a Commodore 64. Things have changed so much since then, but in many ways they are exactly the same.
For the most part, students are taught in a similar fashion. There are memorization heavy tests and report card assessments, teachers often have too many things to juggle and not enough resources to create individualized content where student’s unique strengths can be assessed and cultivated. Unfortunately, and the reasons for this are complex and numerous, our schools act as a sorting mechanism. Using its own distinguishing rules, schools sort out the “good” students from the “bad”. They sort out the students with a “bright” future from those that are heading for “troublesome” paths. However, their sorting mechanism isn’t foolproof. There are many clear examples where they get it wrong.
The schooling system also helps to create, and reinforce, a systemic fear of failure and experimentation. This hasn’t changed from the time I was a child. There is the ever-present stick (although these days not as much a literal one), which manifests itself in detentions or punishments for disobedience, poor marks, failing grades for the “wrong answers” and the parent teacher interview to discuss the child’s progress relative to her peers. There is also the proverbial carrot – the reward for good behavior, the good marks and positive endorsements for the “right answers”. A well behaved child may even be fortunate enough to earn a positive “label”, which will follow them throughout their life, such as smart, gifted, talented or advanced. A poorly behaved child, particularly one who is adept at giving wrong answers, may also earn a “label” of a different, and far more troubling kind, given the phenomenon of the Pygmalion Effect.
In the most formative years of their lives, children can become behaviorally conditioned to seek the right answers, get praise from people who are in a position to give it, and avoid inconsistency or disruption at all costs. Failure can be a terrifying prospect for a child. It places children in a position of uncertainty because they are told that their life may be difficult going forward if they don’t figure it out. Children with learning difficulties, or a lack of emotional support at home, or in their immediate community, often can’t find the resources they need to be “successful” in the conventional school setting. The label that is presented to them, if accepted as the foundation of their self-identity can have damning consequences that only an empowering contradictory reference can negate.
Also, many students seek career opportunities in post-secondary training that lead to economic security and social acceptance, not individual creativity and personal fulfillment. Getting the carrot, in whatever form it presents itself, feels good, not just to a child but also to an adult. Getting the stick, in whatever form it presents itself, doesn’t feel good. The model is effective and efficient. People, like me, who learned how to play the game, come out of the system with sterling credentials, and a “bright future”, but (again, like me) find themselves professionally unfulfilled when working in the area they were educated in. This is because we never learned as children to tap into the unique values and abilities that are inside of us. We never learned to experiment with life. We never learned the virtue of failure and risk.
Meanwhile, many people who are rejected by the conventional model, end up innovating, creating, and adding value to the world in a way that changes society for the better. Once they are rejected, or labeled, or “fail” they have nothing to lose. They are freed from the chains of expectation and consistency. No one expects the people who “fail” the school system to amount to anything, so they aren’t scared of failure. They aren’t afraid to experiment. They aren’t afraid to try new things, even if they go wrong. They often experiment until they tap into something unique, and they often change the world.