Years ago, I stumbled upon an interview question that remains my favorite — “Tell me about a time when you failed at something. If you could go back and redo the situation, what would you do differently?” I always get a lot of interesting responses to this question, including “I can’t think of anything.”
People often think it is a trick question and are afraid to admit that they have ever failed. For me, the best candidates for a job recognize times in their lives when they did fail and learned from the experience. I will never forget interviewing a woman, probably in her late 40s/early 50s who was completely honest about a professional situation, how she responded to it, and what she later realized she should have done. The way she answered that question told me that she was the perfect person for the job. I hired her, and she was perfect. I mention her age only because I think it, unfortunately, takes a lot of life experience for us to realize that failure is good.
Failure teaches us and helps us to become better people and better at life. Walt Disney, Albert Einstein and Bill Gates, along with many other entrepreneurs, stumbled before they found success. Walt Disney was fired for not having creative ideas. Bill Gates dropped out of college. Einstein was told he was stupid by a teacher and fired from his first two jobs.
One of my favorite companies is based in Tulsa. Their amazing customer service was the first thing I noticed. But, then I learned about the founding of the company — a story told often by their army of fans. The owner/founder, Jill Donovan, started making cuffs as a creative outlet to heal after being humiliated for her love of regifting on the Oprah Winfrey Show. It is a long story, but after recovering from the hurt, her love of creating and gifting led to the founding of her company, Rustic Cuff. Today, she has stores in four cities and a book that launched this week.
We know that being successful in high school gets you into college and success in college leads to a steady career. But, how do entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and many others who do not finish college find the level of success they do? I argue that they are not afraid to fail. When something doesn’t go right, they try something else. They learn from their mistakes.
Today, in our efforts to keep our children safe, we are raising children to fear failure. But, what is it about failure that scares us? Why are we afraid to try new things and step out on a limb to achieve a dream?
We are taught from a young age that to be successful means you do everything right the first time. Schools do not give student awards for taking risks. Rather they recognize children for following school protocol, getting good grades and not missing school.
A few months ago, an article in Business Insider caught my attention. “Why valedictorians rarely become rich and famous — and the average millionaire’s GPA was 2.9.” Shana Lebowitz cites Eric Barker who writes in his book “Barking Up the Wrong Tree” that while those who are valedictorians and salutatorians in high school go on to graduate from college with a high GPA and find top level jobs, they are not the ones taking risks that change the world. Success in school is often found in doing exactly what you are expected to do. The real world rewards those who take a chance and try something new.
Anyone familiar with the Montessori approach to education knows that we do not give grades until ninth grade. In today’s society, the idea of not grading a child’s performance seems strange. However, as I explain to parents, we want children to master the material and to do their best work — not for us (a grade), but for themselves. As children grow up in a system that rewards and punishes them based on someone else’s expectations, they learn to do what they have to do for the reward (better grade). They then become adults who are afraid to step out on a limb because what happens if that limb break? It is a long way to fall when you are not sure you can pick yourself up.
School and home should be environments that encourage children to take chances, to explore the things they are good at and to grow the confidence they need to take on the world when they are adults.
In the end, grades get you into college. But, afterward, few people ask an applicant about their GPA. They might, though, ask about a time you failed.
Jessica Hayes is the director of The Montessori School of Fort Smith. Her column, Education Today, runs the second Friday of each month. E-mail email@example.com or tweet @fsmontessori.