As a child who struggled mightily to learn how to learn, and then struggled especially hard when it came to learning how to read and write, I well know what failure feels like. It was my constant companion in youth. These experiences are the bedrock of the fellow feeling I have for my young readers who face the difficulties of learning and growing up in a complex world. However, those who deal with dyslexia and other learning challenges are the ones for whom I have deepest compassion.
When we struggle to learn, our internal dialog often features repetitive, negative messages like “I’m stupid,” and “I can’t do anything right.” These stories we tell ourselves (about ourselves) are so powerful that it actually programs us to fail. After all, if I know in my heart that I’m a failure, what else can I do but fail?
Can changing the way we view the stories of our lives really make a difference? Dr. Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia says it can. He observes that if we can train ourselves to believe something good about ourselves—that we are more capable, smarter, socially comfortable, etc.—we make space in our mind for those profound changes to actually occur.
Wilson elaborates on the power of revising our story here. In short, he describes a group of college students who were struggling with their coursework. Their stories boiled down to “I’m bad at school,” or some other equivalent. Those beliefs led to self-defeating cycles that seemed impossible to break.
But then Dr. Wilson introduced them to a new story: Everyone fails at first. The story was illustrated by videotaped interviews of other students, who had failed miserably at first in college, but who later improved. The intervention took a mere 40 minutes, but the results were life-changing.
Those who were helped to ‘edit’ their story improved their grades and were more likely to stay in college. Those in the control group who stayed stuck in their original story of ongoing failure were most likely to drop out.
Our take-away as parents and educators: when kids get frustrated because of failing a task the first time (or the first 100 times), share this message with them. Share stories of times you failed the first time you attempted a new task, and how difficult the feelings of frustration were. Describe how you made improvements and eventually succeeded. Help them believe that they can improve, and that they are indeed good enough, by showing them that you believe in them. Help them change their internal story from “I’ll never succeed,” to “Someday I will succeed.” Teach them that “failure is not a permanent condition” and that it’s a gift “to be willing to fail, to be wrong, to start over again with lessons learned.” (Some of the above quotes are taken from a great TED talk by Angela Duckworth about the importance of grit. It’s about 8 minutes long, so check it out if you have the time.)