Have Your Young Professionals Learned How to Fail?

Yes, you read that correctly. As I speak with employers every week, one of the concerns they mention is the apprehension many new graduates display when compelled to make a decision for which there is no right answer. Sometimes this apprehension takes the form of endless questions. Sometimes it appears to be a lack of urgency. Sometimes it looks like procrastination. But regardless of what it looks like, most managers want to yell, “Just make a decision!”

Without going into a long dissertation on why this is happening, it’s important to understand the origin of the problem – a lack of experience with failure. Those of us who came of age prior to the digital conveniences, learned how to “figure it out,” whatever “it” happened to be. There was no escape button or option to go back a screen. When our choice turned out to be wrong, we learned to recover. There were no helicopter parents or rules mandating second chances. We suffered embarrassment, loss of time or money, and even the laughter and humiliation of others. BUT WE GOT OVER IT!

We also learned these lessons earlier in life. Ask those 35 and older when they held their first job and most will tell you 14, 15 or 16, many even younger. I managed a paper route in high school. Did I learn how to fail and get past mistakes? Weekly. But in addition to developing a bunch of problem solving skills, I developed the confidence to act. When I took my first professional job, I already possessed a reservoir of “street smarts.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everyone in their early twenties and younger is a “snowflake.” But there are millions of emerging professionals who are just now being compelled to think for themselves and adapt to the consequences. So what do you do?

Employers: Want to deal with this successfully? Do two things: 1) Hire smart. I don’t care what the applicant knows. I want to know how the applicant think. Get past the meaningless interviews and put them to the test – simulations, case studies, practical applications will compel them to demonstrate their problem solving skills and confidence. You may still hire them because they have other traits you need. But at least you’ll know where to start from day one.

2) When they get stuck, let them stew. People have an amazing ability to come up with solutions when there’s no alternative. But if you don’t force them to do so, they won’t try.

Employers who are also parents: STOP SAVING YOUR KIDS’ BUTTS! I know you mean well. But you’re doing to other employers what you don’t want happening to you. The earlier they learn how to fail and recover, the earlier they’ll learn how thrive. Do you really want your kids struggling in their first job at age twenty-two because they didn’t start learning the basics at twelve? Want an award-winning book on the subject? Read Figure It Out! Better still, give it to your kids. I’ll send you a free copy. All you have to do is ask.

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