Are We Becoming a Society of Failure Phobes?

I was struck recently by the comments of a teacher I’ve known for a long time. We were discussing her students’ reactions to bad grades and criticism. She related the shock and protest they express when receiving less-than-stellar evaluations. “It’s almost like they’re phobic about failure.” Yet, while K-12 educators deal with this displeasure, so do college faculty, managers, volunteer leaders, and anyone else expected to evaluate another’s work.

Are we becoming a society of failure phobes? In a word – YES! As a host of philosophers have observed, life is a journey. So is the quest for success. These days, however, we tend to lionize the few who experienced some extraordinary good fortune and extrapolate that if it happened to them, we have a right to it as well. When it doesn’t happen, many of us conclude that we are failures or that society has failed us.

The problem is a lack of perspective. Most of the people I know in business, for instance, have joked that they are fifteen- or twenty-year overnight successes. In other words, it took a long time and countless little setbacks for others to recognize that their overall efforts have resulted in considerable success. These individuals have not counted their setbacks as failures, but as obstacles in a long-time journey. Yet society implies these days that if your efforts are not immediately rewarded with recognition and praise, you have failed.

Why? Because we are products of the messages foisted upon us by others. Too many parents delude their children into thinking that they are entitled to success. Too many policy makers pass legislation mandating fairness (ie. a right to success) for everyone in every situation when this is impossible to achieve, let alone enforce. Too many in the media publicize the unrealistic success of anomalies like Mark Zuckerberg, without placing these people and situations in perspective.

Can we be smart decision makers without failure? Of course not! Ironically, many of those considered most successful at any point in history have been those who have experienced devastating failures and bounced back. The next time you hear of some overnight sensation, dig deeper. Chances are you’ll discover a string of setbacks overcome in the process of getting there.

The sooner one discovers and accepts that success in any realm is the result of calculated risk mixed with a generous dose of mistakes and setbacks, the sooner that person discovers the nature of success. Decide to succeed, but accept that failure is part of the formula.

Would You Want Austin on Your Team?

Austin is a shift manager at my local McDonalds. Over the past few months, I have watched with a bit of fascination as he deftly supervises a wide range of ages and personalities. Employees accept his instructions with good nature and will own up to a mistake when he calls them on it. It is very evident that he is in charge, yet fair and professional. He knows how to give both compliments and criticisms with positive effect.

But here’s the thing — Austin is 18! He’s a senior in high school! Last week, I pulled him aside for a few minutes and asked where he learned all this. “My parents, mostly,” he said. “And I’ve had some good coaching from the owners.” I asked him to explain further. “From my parents, I’ve gotten a good work ethic and set of values about contributing to the organization,” he said. “My manager has been good about giving me specific instructions on how to handle people . . what to do, what not to do and how to avoid being manipulated by those who are just clocking hours. It took some time, but I’ve gotten the hang of it.”

I asked him about dealing with people three times his age. “I make a point of getting to know them and showing I care,” he said. They’re just here to make some money and keep busy. There’s nobody on a power trip. I think they’re even a little fascinated that I’m so young. The people my age are more likely to challenge me, but we’re work it through and I stick to my expectations. I make mistakes, but I’m learning.”

How refreshing! As much as we lament the lazy distracted ways of some Millennials, Austin is a great example of how bright the future can be. Whether he chooses a career with McDonalds or someplace else, he’s going to be successful. Interestingly, he attributes his work ethic and values to parenting. We can certainly use more of that in today’s disparate society. After all, the members of every emerging generation learn from the environments in which they come of age.