Want to Succeed with Grit? Learn to Fail

Would we travel in cars today if Henry Ford had not persevered in building the Model T? Could we switch on a light bulb if Thomas Edison lacked the grit to invent one? Of course, others would have likely developed these indispensable inventions had these men not succeeded. But they did succeed, where others failed, because they had the grit to persevere in the face of failure.

And they both failed many times.

Henry Ford’s first two companies went out of business and the third had extremely low sales. But rather than causing him to abandon his dreams, the failures spurred him on to find a better way to mass produce affordable cars, which then changed the course of the transportation industry.

Thomas Edison wrote more than 40,000 pages of notes and tried 1,000 different approaches before finally developing a safe, inexpensive electric light bulb for the home. But fortunately these failed attempts only strengthened his perseverance. He saw these “failures” as simply a means to an end and not the end. “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up,” he said. “The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

It could be argued that perseverance is a necessary trait for anyone to be truly successful. And perseverance is often a byproduct of failure. In her popular TedTalk video, University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth reveals a surprising discovery that she made while teaching seventh-grade math in New York. It wasn’t always the most talented students, or those with the highest IQs, who did well in her class. Her strongest performers were often those who continued to work out the problems even when they failed to get the right answer immediately. Those students who exhibited what she called “grit” were the ones who succeeded.

“This quality of being able to sustain your passions, and also work really hard at them, over really disappointingly long periods of time, that’s grit,” she explains in an interview with NPR. When she studied students in the Chicago Public Schools, she found that “grittier kids were significantly more likely to graduate.”

And grit often begins with failure. So if your kids are experiencing failure, they may well be on the road to success. Don’t miss these opportunities to encourage your kids to become more persistent and demonstrate grit in the face of failure. Perseverance, or grit, is something they can develop.

And you can help them do so with the following steps:

Try Something Hard

If your kids are doing well in all their subjects, they may be missing the opportunity to develop that true grit that comes from bumping up against failure. Encourage them to try something that doesn’t come naturally, perhaps a new hobby or a different subject. The accomplishment is not as important as the effort they put in. When they learn that investing time and discipline into a challenging task can lead to positive results, they will gain confidence and the knowledge that persistence can lead to achievement. And they will learn to find new ways to achieve their goals. As Thomas Edison said, “There’s a way to do it better—find it.”

Get a Gritty Perspective

Kids may assume that they are failing until they’ve actually achieved their goal (good grades, learning a language, learning to play an instrument, etc.). Help them gain a new perspective by teaching them that these apparent “failures” are just part of the journey to success. It’s the failed attempts that lead to the victories. As Henry Ford once said, “Success is 99% failure.”  If you find that the pace of a brick-and-mortar classroom is not conducive to allowing your student time to apply this trial and error approach to learning, consider a more individualized learning environment such as what is available in an online school.

Harness the Power of Potential

Children and adults often believe that a person’s basic qualities and talents are inherent and unchanging. They think they are stuck with the intelligence, personality, and talents that they were born with. Such an attitude removes the potential for growth and does not encourage perseverance. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck advocates what she terms a growth mindset, which is the belief that “basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.” Make an effort to foster this growth mindset in your child, which will give him the grit to reach his potential and not settle for his current status.

Refocus and Praise the Effort

It may seem somewhat clichéd to praise your child just for trying, but it is a quality you need to encourage. If your focus is strictly on good grades and you overlook the time and effort your child is making, you may be missing the more important outcome and discouraging his inner grit. If your child’s hard work doesn’t result in the good grades you both hoped for, he needs to know that his effort was still worthwhile and commendable. “Talent is cheaper than table salt,” notes bestselling author Stephen King. “What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

Connect Hard Work to Success

When your children achieve something they have been working toward, be sure to associate their accomplishments to the work they put into it. Instead of just saying, “Congratulations on getting such good grades this year,” add a note about their efforts, such as, “Putting in the time to study the material makes all the difference.” Instead of only praising their performance—“You are an excellent soccer player”—consider saying “Going to those soccer practices has made you an excellent player.” Achieving goals is great, but working to achieve them despite failures and obstacles is an important part of the process.

Get Inspired

There are countless examples of famous people in history who have succeeded in large part due to their persistence, including Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Read books and view movies with your children that highlight this quality of grit and demonstrate the rewards that come from it. It can be frustrating to keep trying and failing at something, so staying inspired to persevere is difficult, especially for kids. “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” said Winston Churchill. So maintain their enthusiasm with some inspirational literature.

If you are concerned that your kids are not meeting every goal you have for them, maybe it is time to focus on their grit instead. Once they learn to fail and can respond with true grit, those goals will be much more achievable.


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