Success: An Utter Failure

failWay back in the Stoned Age, Bob Dylan sang us, “She knows there’s no success like failure/And failure’s no success at all.”  Even though most of us had no idea what this meant at the time, it was so smartass/Oscar Wilde clever that we took to tucking it into casual conversations.  Sounding profound (I think we called it heavy) got a lot of traction in those days.  Half a century later, of course, we realize Bob was simply stating the bloody obvious and poetically making it sound like he was Einstein with a guitar.  Actually, I hadn’t thought about that song for years.  However, it did come back to me the other day in one of those plus ca change moments.  I was reading about this revolutionary new theory that children learn tons more from the occasional failure than they ever do from constant success.  Wow!  Who knew?  Apparently, just Bob and I.

These radical thinkers came up with this burst of genius from observing children in their natural environment — without parent or teacher intervention.  They found that, left to their own devices, kids have a way of shrugging off the metaphorical kick in the teeth.  Not only that, but they actually learn from their mistakes and seldom repeat them.  Problem solving becomes an analytical process, not a hope-for-the-best guessing game, and children feel a sense of accomplishment when they finally master a task.  These revelations have been written up in the usual gobbledy-gook (big words like learning opportunities and educational initiatives) in several learned journals.  However, from my point of view, the whole thing sounds remarkably like tales from my childhood – and that’s the problem.

To the entrenched minds of the last fifty years, the notion of condoning failure infail2 education is dangerously turning back the clock.  (What next?  Letter grades?  Dunce caps?  The lash?)  The prevailing wall of wisdom is that self esteem is the holy grail of a kid’s education, and all salvation stems from that.  Failure is the hidden satanic verse which could destroy that self esteem, and so, like porno, it’s suitable for adults only.  We’ve shaped our entire education system to this end.  Many schools no longer give tests, issue grades, keep score at sporting events or even allow games like tag.  So for a bunch of dissentients to boldly pronounce that this approach is crap…well… them’s fightin’ words to the powers that be.

I’m siding with those young guns on this one.  For the last two generations, we’ve been chasing the chimera that everybody under twenty should get a trophy — just because.  The results haven’t been exactly stellar.  Generation X has spent the last ten years bitchin’ and moanin’ about how badly society has treated them, while simultaneously ass-grooving in front of their video screens, hanging with the Kardashians.  Meanwhile, their children, the iGeneration (Millennials, if you prefer) spend their days just being angry.  They’re convinced that the world owes them a living and can’t, for the life of them, figure out why they’re not getting it.  Both think adversity is what happens to other people and neither would know what perseverance is if it bit them on the buttocks.  Personally, I think if they’d been allowed to stumble and fall a couple of times, when they were young, they’d have learned to pick up their feet by now.

When Bob Dylan offered us the success and failure conundrum, it was true.  It always has been; we just forgot it for a couple of generations.   Perhaps, however, as Dylan also sang, “the times they are a-changing.”  We can only hope.

Finding a Cure for Self-esteem

I’m going to tell you how to make a million dollars.  It’s easy – just write Self-Help books.  This is about to become a growth industry that’s absolutely recession proof – like trash collector.  It’s based on the classic marketing model: give people a disease and then sell them the cure.  Here’s how it works.

Sometime back in the 70s-going-on-80s we decided that people were basically miserable.  There was no empirical evidence for this, but we thought that nobody was very happy.  Personally, I think we were just suffering from a 70s hangover — but who am I?  Anyway, rather than pass this woeful state of depression on to our children, we decided to change the world.  We loaded up our kids with self-esteem and convince them that every worldly delight was within their grasp.  All they had to do was set their mind to it, and they could accomplish anything.  Nobody looked at this strategy very closely; for example, we didn’t bother giving these kids tools like self-discipline.  We preferred to emphasize attitudes like entitlement.  Regardless, most people and institutions fought the self-esteem revolution with a vengeance.  Kids were cocooned and coerced.  Nothing unpleasant ever crossed their teeny horizons and we told them over and over, that they were special little beings.   Whenever anything disagreeable raised its ugly head, the cry of “What about the children?” would echo throughout the land, and that was the end of that.  Likewise, nothing short of “excellent” was ever sufficient praise for these kids — even for the most modest efforts.  This tyranny went from toddler to teenager and for twenty years, it ruled the world.  There are still traces of it kicking around today.  Believe me, you’re taking your life in your hands if you try to get between a hovermom and her cub.

Now, fast forward to 2011.  There’s this huge segment of people in our society who are around 30 years old.  They have a modicum of higher education, a low-maintenance job, a decent income and tons of leisure time.  They are that upper middleclass backbone that keeps our society on the straight and narrow.  Unfortunately, despite all the trappings of success and genuine well being, these folks are dissatisfied.  In fact, they spend most of their time actively pissed off.  Somewhere between high school and the Home Equity Loan, the world changed out from underneath them.  Through a series of knees to the emotional groin, they discovered that the world outside their immediate circle didn’t actually think they’re anything special.  In fact, the world in general thought they were rather dim bulbs and, for the most part, took outrageous advantage of them.  They still cling together cuddling each other with daily doses of “You’re so awesome!” but, in reality, they know they aren’t.  Plus and this is what dropped the ice cream into the mud puddle — they’ve discovered that praise and applause are not automatic and accolades for adults take a hell of a lot more hard work than it ever did in high school.

On a daily basis, these people just feel trapped.  Their kids are overweight and not at all as precocious as the ones on TV.  Their spouses are preoccupied (at best) but mostly uninterested.  Their coworkers don’t care if they live or die – not really.  And they might hang out with their friends, but they never have any lifestyle-changing adventures with them.  Nobody thinks they’re the best and the brightest anymore, and gravity is starting to make them sag.  It’s a pretty bleak picture.

Let me take a minute to clarify.  This isn’t every thirty-year-old in North America, but there are a lot of them.

The stunning part of this scenario is that the whole crowd still believe they’re the centre of the universe.  They think there’s something wrong with them, and they’re looking around for a get-fixed-quick-scheme.  You and I both know this is ridiculous but for the last five years or so, there’ve been any number of books, blogs and websites written about this.  They all focus exclusively on the rude awakening the vast majority of these self-esteem babies have been suffering.  The latest hocus-pocus is something called self-compassion, a kind of Stuart Smalley “give yourself a shake” therapy.  As far as I can tell, nobody, including the proponents, has any idea what it’s supposed to do.  However, depending on who you talk to, it can mean anything from auto-induced tough love to a hot bath with candles and incense.  The only universal is the 30-somethings are buying this stuff by the carload, and nobody ever says, “Life is tough.  Get off your ass and get used to it.”

So if you’re not doing anything this week and want to make a million dollars or so, come up with a reasonable-sounding title that has “you” or “your” in it.  Fill in 200 pages with a whole pile of short chapters with words like Honesty, Evaluation, Engaging, Embracing and Empowering in them.  Then, introduce the whole mess with a Foreward that blames the parents for everything from the death of disco to the current economic recession.  Finally, finish it off with a message for the readers to indulge themselves more often because they deserve it.

You’ve got the makings of a bestseller.  But whatever you do, don’t say, “Hey, look, you spoiled brats!  You need to get over yourselves.”  That’s not what they want to hear, and they’re not going to pay for that.