Brain Pickings

What Children Can Teach Us About Risk, Failure, and Personal Growth

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“Our fear of failure … assures the progressive narrowing of the personality.”

“If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt,” E.F. Schumacher wrote in his timelessly wonderful A Guide for the Perplexed in 1977, “I minimize the risk of error but I maximize, at the same time, the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important and most rewarding things in life.” In the decades since, the notion of embracing risk and failure has become one of the most common tropes in motivational talks, self-help books and business articles alike. It’s been championed by everyone from Ray Bradbury, who considered failure essential to creativity, to Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, who argued for the importance of cultivating a failure-fearless culture, but none more eloquently than social science writer John W. Gardner in a section of Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society (public library) — his altogether fantastic, forgotten field guide to keeping your company and your soul vibrantly alive, which remains a must-read as much for entrepreneurs as for those of us on a private journey of self-transcendence.

Illustration from Lisbeth Zwerger's imaginative interpretation of Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

Gardner considers what children’s supple membrane for experience can teach us about the role of failure in learning and growth:

One of the reasons why mature people are apt to learn less than young people is that they are willing to risk less. Learning is a risky business, and they do not like failure. In infancy, when the child is learning at a truly phenomenal rate — a rate he will never again achieve — he is also experiencing a shattering number of failures. Watch him. See the innumerable things he tries and fails. And see how little the failures discourage him. With each year that passes he will be less blithe about failure. By adolescence the willingness of young people to risk failure has diminished greatly. And all too often parents push them further along that road by instilling fear, by punishing failure or by making success seem too precious. By middle age most of us carry in our heads a tremendous catalogue of things we have no intention of trying again because we tried them once and failed — or tried them once and did less well than our self-esteem demanded.

Artwork from 'Fail Safe,' Debbie Millman's illustrated-essay-turned-commencement address. Click image for more.

The cost of our ever-shrinking comfort zone, Gardner argues, is tremendous:

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure — all your life. It’s as simple as that.

Self-Renewal is a trove of timeless wisdom in its entirety. Sample it further here and complement it with Sarah Lewis’s elegant treatise on the gift of failure across the history of creative culture.

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