The Art of Failing in School and Succeeding in Life

A young man was restless in his studies. He couldn’t stay focused on school work, and found himself consistently skipping classes, missing due dates, and working on projects that meant something to him…rather than for a class.

A year into college he realized it was a waste of money, and not for him. He was bright, well prepared for school, and even got decent grades (when he tried). Yet, he left school all the same. And it was the best decision he ever made.

Who is the man in the story above?

Steve Jobs? Bill Gates? Mark Zuckerberg? The list could go on. Many of our greatest innovators and leaders all have one thing in common: they failed in school…or just decided to drop out.

In fact, this trend has prompted investors like Peter Thiel (PayPal and Facebook) to actually pay students to drop out of college to start a business:

“One of the wealthiest, best-educated American entrepreneurs, Peter Thiel, isn’t convinced college is worth the cost. With only half of recent U.S. college graduates in full-time jobs, and student loans now at $1 trillion, Thiel has come up with his own small-scale solution: pay a couple dozen of the nation’s most promising students $100,000 to walk away from college and pursue their passions.”

The last line of that quote is what really gets me, “walk away from college and pursue their passions”. That is assuming college doesn’t allow students to pursue their passions. Peter Thiel isn’t the only one who feels that way.

When Failing Is a Good Thing

We tend to lump “failure” with being “unsuccessful” when it is quite the opposite. Failing is one of the best ways to learn and progress (especially in innovative work) and should be celebrated in our schools and society instead of looked down upon.

Jessica Lahey is a columnist for the NYT and the Atlantic. Her new book, “The Gift of Failure”, is set to release next year. She is also a veteran teacher who wrote one of the most shared posts this past year, “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail”. Her point rings true:

“Children make mistakes, and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. Year after year, my “best” students — the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives — are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.”

The first thing we need to know is that success stories like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg aren’t anomalies…instead they point to a bigger issue at hand: do we need to fail in order to succeed in life?

The answer to that question is “Yes” but maybe not how you envisioned it.

How Do You Define Success

Charlie Hoehn was the type of student we all want our children to become. He had a great GPA, high SAT scores, and was accepted into a high profile college. Charlie continued down this path of academic success at college and graduated with honors.

Six months after college graduation, Charlie found himself lying on the bathroom floor, filled with anxiety, and confused at how he could have applied to hundreds of jobs and still was jobless.

Charlie had “played the game of school” perfectly, but failed to succeed after college graduation.

When I spoke with Charlie last month he made it clear to me: “The rules for success I learned in school didn’t really apply to the real world. There was no next step. You think you can do well in college and get a great job, just like doing well in high school gets you into a great college…but the real world doesn’t work like that. You have to learn to play in a different game.”

So, what did Charlie do? He learned from his failures, and eight months later he had worked with multiple New York Times bestsellers as a marketing specialist, and went on to help guys like Tim Ferris launch their new books!

Charlie wasn’t successful until he failed and learned from his failures. Getting straight A’s didn’t prepare him for making his own path once he graduated. If this is the reality, how do we prepare out students and children to be successful in life?

Valedictorians and Millionaires

Let me ask you a question: Do you think there are more valedictorians that have gone on to start multi-million dollar businesses…or more high-school and college dropouts that have created these businesses?

The question is up for debate. However, it leads to a bigger question: How can so many students fail in school and be massively successful in life?

The answer is simple: The two don’t always have much correlation.

Take for instance these notable folks who left school in pursuit of something else:

  • Thomas Edison: 1000 patents to his name including the electric light bulb, phonograph, and motion picture camera.
  • Ben Franklin: Politician, diplomat, author, printer, publisher, scientist, inventor, founding father, and coauthor and cosigner of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Albert Einstein: Time magazine’s “Man of the Century” and Nobel Prize winning physicist.
  • Walt Disney: Started the Walt Disney company (and my kids are happy he did!).
  • John D. Rockefeller: First recorded billionaire in history…
  • Richard Branson: A self-made billionaire businessman. He founded Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Records, Virgin Mobile, and most recently, a space tourism company to provide suborbital trips into space for anyone who can afford them.
  • Colonel Sanders:After dropping out of elementary school, Sanders worked many jobs, including firefighter, steamboat driver, and insurance salesman. He later earned a law degree from a correspondence school. Sanders’ cooking and business experience helped him make millions as the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC).
  • Charles Dickens: Author of numerous classics including Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol.
  • Ray Croc: Started the McDonald’s food chain, he massed a $500 million fortune during his lifetime, and in 2000 was included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential builders and titans of industry in the 20th century.

The list could go on.

So what’s the point?

Focus on “Successful Failures”

We must change school to focus on “successful failures”. Those failures where students learn and grow. Forget the international PISA tests comparing student data. Forget the national rise in “Grade Inflation” over the past 20 years. Forget the helicopter parents that actually “do their students work for them”…

If we want to learn from history, the writing on the wall is clear. Let students fail to watch them succeed. Give opportunities for them to experiment, design, connect, synthesize, apply concepts, critique, analyze, create, and prove. Let them explore their own passions and find purpose in their learning. And above all, let them know that school isn’t about getting a grade…but learning how to learn effectively on their own. If they don’t learn that lesson in school, they can learn it out in the real world, and be just as successful (or more) as any valedictorian.

Photo Credit: via Compfight cc

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  • […] Juliani’s latest post is about letting students fail and that high school is not about the grade, it is about learning.  I know we all agree.  Here is the article,  The Art of Failing in School and Succeeding in Life […]

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  • Jon Harper says:

    AJ I really loved this post! The part about paying kids to drop out of college to pursue their dreams was powerful. It is true that school/college often seems like another hoop that must be jumped through before you get to really pursue your passion.

  • Anonymous says:

    Hello! I’m in HS, I get straight A’s, and I study on my own… I’m the smallest in my class (Senior but barely 15) I ALWAYS have people saying “You’re good at school but a failure in life…”
    I am not the best at soccer, conversations, or decisions, I do get bullied verbally, but I want a way to fix my life. I do get straight A’s but I do copy-paste, bring up devious ideas to not sweat and get full marks. I need help on knowing if the statement “Good at school but a failure at life” applies on me, and how I can fix that. I can’t fail or get too lazy as my parents will destroy every bit of life I have. Thanks in Advance!!

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