Young People’s Biggest Fear? Failure

One of the towns I work in recently surveyed the employers about skills and young people in the town. Reading through the findings, employers were keen to stress that they sought soft skills in their young staff. Things like resilience and communication skills…but also, there were a couple of comments regarding a fear of failure.

They said that they find it hard to get good people to work for them because fear of failure prevents young people from trying new things, from stretching themselves and from putting themselves out there. If everyone stays in their comfort zones, progressive work simply doesn’t get done.

Young people’s fear of failure is something I am very familiar with. In my previous company, members of the team set up a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) day at a big and famous company, for competing teams of students from different schools. This is the kind of opportunity usually only privately educated students have access to.

A few weeks before the activity, one school contacted the organiser and said that they will not be partaking in the event. The students were uncomfortable with the competition element of the day and so will decline.

To us adults, the competition was the least important part of the day; they were going to have access to a really amazing company (potentially networking with the employees) as well as pick up amazing skills. Whether they win or not, the students would have gained so much from getting involved.

Working with young people, it can often seem to the untrained eye that they just don’t care about things. They show such a lack of drive for anything, they look to be lazy and unwilling.

But they do care. And I believe it’s the fear of failure that keeps them behind the starting block, far away from the prize at the end.

Recently, in TES magazine (a British publication for teachers), there was an excellent article from Chris Parr on failure in schools. In it, he talks about how students should be able to fail in safe environments. You can read a short version of the article here, but there was one part in particular that I was interested in:

“[research by Lin-Siegler et al, 2016] concluded that the use of so-called “struggle stories” was a “promising and implementable instructional approach” that could potentially improve student motivation and academic performance in all subjects.

“One of the biggest dangers of children seeing successful people as infallible is that they will develop a strong belief that only geniuses can succeed, and that geniuses do not need to work very hard”

It’s true though, isn’t it?

We tell children stories about amazing people who have done amazing things – but do we tell them how hard they worked and how many times they failed before that point?

In the movies, the point where people are trying hard and failing over and over is set to upbeat music. Our hero screws up the piece paper and throws it at the bin – missing the shot, the paper ball rolls on the floor. Cut to the next scene where the bin is full of paper balls.

The super edited photo of a girl sat prettily on a perfectly made bed doesn’t show that she was awake all night with panic attacks, and that her room is a state outside the frame. The “before and after” weightloss journey comparison rarely shows that this transformation took 5 years of constant struggle; it’s much better to let people believe it happened overnight because they ate a weight loss lollipop.

It’s call to action time, folks.

While all the “101 AMAZING WOMEN WHO DID COOL STUFF” books are flying off of the shelves, we need to tell children and young people of the times when things didn’t go so well.

While you tell them about how Richard Branson built up a company from just selling CDs as a teenager, tell them that he has dyslexia, and also tell them about that time he sent a rocket to space and it exploded and killed the pilot. You might also tell them about how he’s buying off our NHS… I digress.

We also need to be open about our success journeys as well, and show that we didn’t just wake up doing the things we did.

At the Cambridgeshire Festival of Education last week, the lovely Kate Atkin was speaking with a lady who does art but wouldn’t call herself an artist, because she didn’t consider herself to be perfect at it yet. She sat there and made this woman say “I am an artist” – it took 3 or 4 attempts!

If we do a thing, we need to start calling ourselves the doer of that thing, even if we aren’t the best. It seems obvious, but I bet there’s something in your life that you do, that you refrain from labeling yourself as.

We’re all striving for unattainable perfection and it’s time to stop and apprecaite the journey, be honest about our failures and to encourage children to learn as much about failed attempts as they do about breakthroughs.

If you are on Instagram and want to embrace more failures and celebrate wins, there’s a new Instagram feed I follow called Pass/Fail. It’s really awesome and you should follow it.

Let’s fail more.

Over to you – what’s been your biggest failure?


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