A Generation Confronts Failure

Failure is coolA major challenge facing Millennials when transitioning from college to professional life is coping with the lack of systematic affirmation. When the careful structure of positive reinforcement on which we were raised is stripped away, how do we avoid becoming crippled by a fear of failure?

Tammy Erickson of the Harvard Business Review connects Gen Y’s failure anxiety with the old “Trophy Kids” cliché. She writes, “The critics are concerned that the culture of praise Ys experienced as a child will reach deeply into the adult world, suggesting that they feel insecure if they’re not regularly complimented.”

Indeed, we are a generation that is great at school. And school conditions us to expect constant, measurable feedback following every venture. But according to Brazen Careerist’s Ryan Paugh, this upbringing doesn’t prevent us from being able to face failure. He told Erickson, “Young workers today aren’t all spoiled attaboy-addicts…. People think of praise in the coddling sense. But what we want is guidance and mentoring—and praise when we’re on track.”

In a separate blog entry on how to handle mistakes, Paugh suggests that our tendency is to avoid failure by surrounding ourselves with people who affirm our every move. But actually, he says, we should position ourselves alongside challenging people who will force us to grow, not allow us to stay the same.

To challenge our fear of failure, it seems we must fail.

Carol Phillips of Millennial Marketing suggests that failure can actually help us more than success. Drawing from Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, she recalls a series of experiments by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, in which 400 New York City fifth-graders were given a relatively easy test. All of the students received verbal affirmation with their results, but half were told they were smart, while the other half were commended for being hard workers.

What happened next deserves a full rendering:

The same fifth graders were given a test designed to be extremely difficult — it was originally written for eight-graders. The students who had been praised for their efforts in the initial test worked hard at figuring out the puzzles. “They got very involved,” Dweck says. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’” Kids that had initially been praised for their smarts, on the other hand, were easily discouraged. Their inevitable mistakes were seen as signs of failure: perhaps they really weren’t smart after all. After taking this difficult test, the two groups of students had to choose between looking at the exams of kids who did worse than them and looking at the exams of those who did better. Students praised for their intelligence almost always chose to bolster their self-esteem by comparing themselves with students who had performed worse on the test. In contrast, kids praised for their hard work were more interested in the higher-scoring exams. They wanted to understand their mistakes, to learn from the errors, to figure out how to do better.

This is sobering news for any smarties discovering for the first time that they’re not the smartest kids in the room.

So how do you march past failure and find the confidence you need to keep working?

First, get humble. Recognize that you aren’t the best. In fact, there are a lot of people out there better than you at your work — which is great because you can learn from them and grow. If you could already do your ideal job perfectly, you’d be bored for the rest of your professional life.

Second, ask. Approach superiors for honest feedback, and don’t get discouraged when they tell the truth. Enjoy whatever praise they offer, but quickly move on. Incorporate their “room for improvement” comments into your goal-setting and, rather than let your shortcomings make you gloomy and anxious, get excited and action-oriented about putting their advice into practice.

Finally, don’t pick the easy way because it means more approval. Challenge yourself, be uncomfortable and embrace the hard work it will take to cultivate your talents.

As marketing guru and champion at life Seth Godin once said, “Innovation is an invitation to failure. If there’s not an opportunity for failure, it’s not innovative.”

Photo by nicolasnova

Acree Graham Since graduating from Emory in 2008, I’ve paid the bills with everything from lattes and babysitting to marketing and social media. I now work in Atlanta as a freelance copywriter. I like cities, literature, radio and design. I still make a damn fine cup of coffee and I’m a pretty good dancer. Twitter: @acreegraham

View all posts by Acree Graham

3 Responses to “A Generation Confronts Failure”

  1. Niles Emerick

    It is required of a true learner, one who is committed to constant growth, that he/she relish the discomfort of learning. This means developing a skill and ability to deal with failure, capture the learnings, and move on to the next failure. Success is great and necessary, but a string of successes often yields a lazy and overly confident person.

  2. melysa martinez

    Ha, it’s like you read what was on my mind as of late, but then again, I suppose that we were both on the same wavelength is more an indication of what a great topic this is, because it applies to so many of us.

    To be humble and to ask is very good advice indeed. We are in a constant stage of learning, after all. Even as we grow older, we’ll probably learn from the young.

    I also want to say that for me, part of the fear of failure is knowing I had so many awful teachers. An A means nothing if they are handed out to everyone. My reference point was all skewed, because I didn’t trust the source.

    And along the same lines of being humble and asking, I hope we develop into a generation that when we’re older and have the youth asking questions, we take them under our wings and teach them the way we hoped and expected our “superiors” would do with us. There’s nothing worse than asking someone who is unwilling to help.



  3. Fear of Failure | Millennials Blog

    [...] league and Generation Y was constantly surrounded by positive reinforcement. Well in the article, A Generation Confronts Failure, the author Acree Graham addresses how this constant affirmation of our greatness will affect [...]


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