Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Failure and Growth Cycle

Some view western culture, and American culture in particular, as a society which places a premium on the success and advancement of the individual.  Critics of this view argue that this premium diminishes some individuals and groups, but others say this does not necessarily have to occur; that one can promote the interests of the individual and society at the same time.  See the works of Ruth Benedict and John Kenneth Galbraith for references on that subject.  In my experience it takes an educated and enlightened individual to pursue "success" and also orient that success to higher purposes, such as benefiting larger and larger circles of human beings.

Enter typical college students and their families.  As noted elsewhere in my blog they tend to arrive being very focused on pragmatic issues such as living arrangements and choice of major.  There is a tremendous amount of energy focused on moving the late adolescent and young adult along a continuum of advancement, however that may be conceived in family ethics and values.  Getting good grades, joining the "right" organizations, and networking for future employment are, in the minds of those involved, locked in rather tightly.  Variance from this template is often frowned upon, if not met with punitive consequences.

But college life is a crucible for the formation of both individuality and responsibility or conscience.  Mistakes and failures are inevitable, and the stuff which catalyzes the higher calling of the young adult.  In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough theorizes that non-cognitive skills such as persistence, resilience and fortitude are actually the bases of future success, though it is cognitive skills that often get the attention.  In this view mistakes and failures are desirable, the launching pad for growth.  In short, one gets intimately acquainted with one's self, with both talents and foibles, through a cycle of failure and growth.

Such is the process of learning who we are, what we can do, and the limitations presented by our perceptions and biases.  The process of "advancement" is much more earthy and sobering than western mythologies would have us believe.  It is very much two steps forward, one backward, a thousand blind alleys to ten workable paths.  And this is to be embraced, not belittled.  Great achievers like Newton, Edison, Einstein, and Carver all said so.

Families can be wonderful allies in the young adult's search for self by understanding this cycle, by welcoming it, and by patiently waiting for their children to learn life's lessons.  Students will succeed in their journey to self-hood by minimizing anxieties about social perfection, or, better yet, rooting them out altogether.  It takes courage to advance.  Fear won't get us there.