What happens when the trophies stop coming?

poster,375x360,ffffffI don’t know about your school, but my alma mater is unafraid to discuss failure.

In fact, Northeastern University’s current alumni issue’s cover story is titled, ‘Dare to fail: Why success requires taking that leap.’

The cover story abounds with one harrowing anecdote after another…of failure. Like me, the powers that be at NU (that would be President Joseph Aoun, @presidentaoun) believe many students can only learn from failure. As a result, @northeastern encourages risk in a major way.

That’s tough love in light of reporter John Ombelets question, “What happens when the most talented members of a whole generation are unable to manage failure or manage risk as learning opportunities?” In other words, what happens if the trophy kids can’t cope with their first setback?

Happily, NU’s experiential learning program (known as co-op) prepares students to fail. In fact, three or four different co-op students share their failure stories in the cover feature. Each learned from his or her mistakes and either switched majors or doubled down on their efforts.

Learning from failure is key because, according to a Northeastern-sponsored survey of senior executives across the US, one-third feel most recent college grads LACK vital workplace skills, including adaptability and the ability to take a career punch. That’s what happens when one’s never failed in the past.

My co-ops enabled me to take a career punch or two. In fact, my gigs at the NY Times, WGCH Radio and CBS Radio, respectively, showed me a different side of failure. I actually excelled at my chosen major, journalism, but hated the culture of the newsroom. So, while I received full-time job offers, I turned them down, knowing I wouldn’t be happy.

Instead, I turned to my co-op advisor who suggested something called public relations instead.

And, check this out: Some NU professors actually create curricula for their doctoral students that requires them to take on at least one research project that carries a high probability of failure.  “Failure is inevitable,” says psychology professor Adam Reeves, one of NU’s ‘cruel to be kind’ faculty. “Without experiencing it in the relatively protected environment of the university, students who have only succeeded in their Ph.D. years will not be prepared for failure when it happens in real-world research positions.” Amen, professor. Amen.

I’m so glad I found out about failure during my Northeastern years. While they didn’t prevent me from failing several times throughout my subsequent career, my NU experiences did harden me for the falls and enabled me to dare to fail again and again in order to succeed.

Trophy kids need to learn that same painful lesson. And soon.

3 thoughts on “What happens when the trophies stop coming?

  1. Excellent blog Repman. In today’s economy, it’s easy to find yourself on the unemployment line. For example, look at the 6,000 casino workers in Atlantic City, New Jersey that are out of work because the Showboat closed it doors. It’s not easy finding a job out there, but these people need to resilient and resourceful. And it’s better to learn at a young age of what life is really like so they can plan accordingly for the future. It’s all about survival and saving for that “rainy day.” Don’t throw in the towel. Pick yourself up and plan your next step and go back in with more determination to succeed.

  2. Great post, Steve. I’m glad schools such as NEU are actually teaching valuable lessons like this. Learning from failure is really the only way to truly learn. I personally wasn’t raised to believe that everyone wins or everyone can win, because not everyone can. Only hard work–whether it’s school, your career or a hobby you enjoy–can help you and sometimes even then there’s still someone out there who is better than you and could beat you. Or sometimes you still fail.

    I agree with Greg’s comment above. That resilient spirit is what counts and many have it, but some learn the hard way (or don’t at all). It’s good that some are actually teaching that, though I am sure, despite the generation, there will still be many who just don’t get it.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Greg and Laura. Learning to fail is fundamental to one day achieving success. For every Mark Zuckerberg, there are countless flameouts who simply couldn’t cope with their very first set back. Kudos to NU for implementing this sort of program.

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