The Many Strengths That Come From Failure

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Failure is a part of life, especially if you’ve messed up on something. Forget to study for that spelling test, and it’s not surprising that you don’t get a good grade.

What happens, though, when you DO study for spelling and the result is still failure?

Many children spend most of the school year failing tests, failing classes, and flunking out, but it’s not for lack of trying. Our twins have struggled with this from the very first day of school. Both have been tested extensively and so we know the underlying issues, including dyslexia, poor rote memory and distractibility.

As parents, one of our toughest jobs is giving our twins the message that struggling with school doesn’t make them a failure in life.  Resiliency and a core emotional strength are character traits we look for in our kids. Failing a spelling test is less difficult than losing a job or failing in a future marriage.

While America seems allergic to failure, let’s put our feelings into perspective. We trumpet the success of a celebrity like Tom Cruise, while hiding the fact that he’s struggled with his own dyslexia issues. When he was a child he thought he was “dumb.”

We often read about successful entrepreneurs, like the founder of Kinko’s, Paul Orfalea.  He suffered from dyslexia and ADHD. But, it didn’t stop him from being successful, as he describes in his book Copy This! Lessons from a hyperactive dyslexic who turned a bright idea into one of America’s best companies. Orfalea learned to work around his weaknesses to turn them into strengths.

As a family, we’ve collected stories of people who’ve used weakness to succeed. Did you know that Leonardo DaVinci, who was incredible talented, had a problem with finishing anything? Have you ever seen his notebooks filled with unfinished projects, ideas and sketches?

Ever watched any of the George Lucas’ Star Wars or Indiana Jones films? Did you know he can’t spell well? Who cares? He can hire a “speller” to translate his great stories into the films we know and love. His buddy, Steven Spielberg couldn’t get into film school because of his “C” average, yet he’s one of the most successful movie directors of all time.

Have you ever enjoyed wonderful stories in the Chronicles of Narnia? What if C.S. Lewis never felt good enough to write them down because as a boy he was always ridiculed in school for his extreme clumsiness? He never succeeded on the soccer field, but aren’t you glad he had a great imagination and the skill to weave a story line?

Albert Einstein waited so long to talk that his parents took him to a doctor to find out what was wrong with him. They were probably horrified when he did start to talk, because he had a strange quirk of saying a sentence out loud to himself to practice it before he actually spoke to another person. The family maid called him “the dopey one” and other family members labeled him as “backwards.” He never excelled at learning languages and memorizing facts and figures. In fact, a teacher actually told him that he’d never amount to anything. Aren’t you glad he didn’t internalize that message and allow it to paralyze him for his future work?

That’s why I consider it so critical for parents to read the extensive Gallup research reported in Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton.  The authors discovered that we often focus on the wrong things  – weaknesses  –  when our greatest improvements will most likely come from improving strengths. Thus, perhaps when our child comes home with two A’s and a D, we wrongly focus on the D rather than brainstorming ways to continue to grow in the areas of the A’s. That is where the difficulty for parents comes from: how to teach a child how to fail gracefully while motivating them to grow in areas of strength so that they’re better equipped to win in life.

I asked Paul, one of the twins, what he thought about how hard he struggles in school, when it seems easy for other kids. He whipped out a poem and told me that he writes poems “all the time.” And, that’s the best part about raising resilient children. They always surprise me.

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