Turkeys and Trophies and the Power of Failing Well

James Darling, Director of Character and Leadership Development
It has been a tradition at the monthly Student Guild planning meetings to start each meeting with an agenda item called “Turkeys and Trophies.” It is an opportunity for Senior School student leaders to celebrate the successful, and not so successful, student-led initiatives of the past month. Nominations are called for from around the table and students can either offer a “trophy” in praise of an event or activity that went well or  some brave leaders will nominate themselves for a “turkey” (complete with a rubber chicken) - symbolic of something that “failed.” “Winners” are then asked to describe or reflect on what might have led to the success or demise of each venture with a view to teaching all what they might do or avoid doing in the future. It is a small, but very powerful teaching moment that can only be realized when a student might admit that things went wrong.
Failure is not something many students care to admit. Indeed, many of today’s headlines, both in popular media and educational journals, speak about a generation of students who are uncomfortable with failure. Recently, at a conference about resiliency, I heard speaker after speaker review the causes and creators of a perceptibly more fragile student population often unable to rise above the occasional let down. Dr. Michael Ungar, a psychologist and author of Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive, spoke to the idea that kids today are bubble wrapped and that by over protecting our children, we are causing them to miss out on what he calls, “the risk-taker’s advantage.” Ungar went on to suggest that by bubble wrapping our kids, we are creating a “lack of opportunity to experience appropriate challenge” and that we need a more balanced approach to child rearing that allows for safe risk-taking without parental interference. He concluded by saying that the real dangers to children’s well being in our more modern world are things like the amount of daily screen time or texting while driving versus violent crime, and that fear of failure or risk-taking was unwarranted and misplaced.

Later at the conference, Louisa Jewell, a positive psychology practitioner, spoke about “failing well” and that the fear of failure is primarily a social construct born from a desire to not look bad in the eyes of others. She advised the audience that success and failure should not be considered opposites but part of the same pathway to learning and growth. Jewell also suggested that schools and parents need to do a better job of teaching kids that failure is natural and never has to be something that attacks our self-esteem. In a neat paraphrasing of Carol Dweck’s work about a growth mindset, Jewell told the audience that we need to teach our youth to be less concerned about looking good and more concerned with being good (at whatever it is we are trying to do). Finally, we were challenged to think about the fact that to live a life without failure would be to assume we are all born talented and that we begin life with all of the knowledge we need to succeed. Certainly, no one can say that.

Back to the turkeys and the trophies. The exercise our HTS Senior School student leaders engage in once a month around the Student Guild table may not single-handedly solve any one student’s fear of failure. However, it will introduce them to the idea that admitting one’s failures in public can actually be cathartic. It can create a sense of camaraderie amongst strangers. It can provide others with a learning moment, and in doing so help to move another individual toward greater success. It can also model the idea that admitting failure does not have to mean someone is weak or not up for the job. Listening to the students share their turkey moments always reminds me of something Louisa Jewell also noted: our goal should not be teaching students to avoid failure; but rather, parents and teachers need to help students learn to fail better.

Perhaps a bit of a mind-bending concept in a highly competitive marketplace seemingly driven by marks as the ultimate marker of success. However, as most adults know and will hopefully admit, we are who we are as a result of a learning path filled with the highs and lows of a few, very educational and perhaps epic “fails.”