Failing to allow failure

359px-Shy_Guy_(Imagicity_55)During the fall semester of my son’s senior year we went on a mad rush of college visits. We were trying to find the most elite school offering a high level of computer science, where he would actually have a shot at getting accepted. MIT was out of the question.

In his early years of high school my son had pushed himself in some areas, such as progressing to calculus by his sophomore year and skipping the initial computer science class, but he had struggled to get good grades in calculus and neglected other areas. Although he managed to make it to the top 10% he was nowhere near the top of his class in grades. However, what caught the attention of some recruiters was a computer science major that had been co-president of the debate team.

This occurred almost by accident. While in junior high school, he was scheduled to attend classes at the high school, which was on a trimester schedule. The first semester the pre-calculus class was not offered, so he took speech instead. He disappointingly described to me a class full unmotivated seniors who loved to goof off and talk, except when it was time for them to present their speeches. However, the teacher realized this class was a waste of time for the few good students. So she offered my son and three others credit for work with a struggling debate team.

I did not believe this was a good match for a quiet boy who had a hard time expressing himself in front of crowds. My son came home from his first debate feeling like a failure except for a kind note from one of the judges stating that his problem was simply nervousness and he would improve if he kept at it. So now it was his senior year and he had kept at it, making his mark on struggling debate team.

As we went from one college visit to another, we frequently heard recruiters repeat the riddle of whether it was better to take the on-level class and make an A, or take advanced course and make a B. Their answer was the perfectionist view – take the advance course and make an A. But my son’s unusual combination of competing in computer science meets and in legislative debate was due to the fact that he had tried something he did not do well.

As students advance through the world of academics, too fearful to experiment in areas in which they made not succeed, they will emerge on the other side with one-sided skills. They may be highly proficient in a technical area or excellent communicators, but rare is the individual with both skills. The chance to try something new and fail is also the chance to develop. If we do not allow it in education or business it is to our own detriment.

Photo by Graham Crumb/

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