There’s been considerable debate in recent years over whether our approach to education is actually teaching kids to fail. After all, life and business have gone through tremendous change in even the past three years and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. Values, objectives and standards are very different to those of the pre-Covid era and there’s no doubt we need to prepare the next generation of graduates for life in a world that will be very different even from this.

However, I wonder if our obsessions with inclusivity, the avoidance of discrimination, anxiety and WOKE aren’t combining to drive us off course. In fact, maybe they are having a detrimental effect and actually teaching kids to fail.

The world doesn’t owe you a living.

A few years ago I interviewed a young graduate in Prague for a role with one of my clients. Toward the end of the interview I confirmed the salary that we were offering (It had already been stated in the advertising for the role). “Yes I know” she said “But that’s not enough”. She went on to give a much higher figure that she was looking for. 

Now, I’m open to negotiation on most things, so I asked  “So, why do you feel you are worth this much?” and she replied “Because I speak English and I went to University”.

I pointed out that while these were assets I would like to hear what she could bring to the role, to which she again replied “I speak English and I went to University”.

So I explained how things work in real life.  “If we pay you this much we will need to be confident that you will contribute accordingly” I said. “What are you going to do that makes this salary good value for us?”

“I’ve just told you” she replied “ I speak English and I went to University”

“I appreciate that” I said “But that doesn’t explain what extra contribution you are going to make in this role that would justify the salary you are asking”

At this point the candidate stood up, said “You don’t understand anything” and walked out.

I don’t know if she found the job she was looking for, or if she did, how long she lasted (or the employer for that matter). I’m also not suggesting she is typical. However, I’m encountering a growing number of candidates with unrealistic expectations and an over-inflated impression of their own worth. 

Where is this coming from?

I realise there’s a popular belief among teachers and parents that it is inappropriate to highlight under-performance in children. I’m prepared to accept that it may not be constructive to point a finger at failure. However, that doesn’t mean we should be praising it either. There’s a danger this is what is happening and as a result we are teaching kids to fail.

The fine line between praising failure and making it clear that success is a product of effort, is too often missed. It seems these days you get a medal regardless of your achievements and it’s giving kids the idea that all they have to do is turn up. I’m more of the Nike philosophy that “You don’t win silver you lose gold”.

The point is, life is competitive. Real success is earned not given. It takes effort. I mean, real hard work, to be a genuine success. Lulling a generation into the belief that they are better than they are isn’t doing anyone any favours, least of all business leaders striving to build sustainable businesses in an increasingly competitive marketplace.  I get the feeling we are lowering expectations to enable people to “achieve” or feel included, without the graft, but it’s having an unforeseen effect on the success of businesses everywhere.

A lot of this is due to the way we seem to measure “success”.

Too many folks view success in monetary terms and, of course, there are a lot of ways folks can make money for a short period with no talent and very little effort. However, that seems rather hollow and unfulfilling in a world where large slews of society are struggling to survive. I’ve spoken about this in the past and highlighted the emerging shift to responsible investment where success is measured in terms of contribution to society. The evidence shows that this objective will still deliver a financial return, so there are no excuses, but there remain people who take the easy road and exploit who they can.

You may have come across a piece of research carried out in the 1990’s by the psychologist Dr Carol Dweck. It involved 400 children who were split into two groups. Both groups were given a simple mathematical test. Half the children were praised for their brilliance and for being amazing children. The other group were told they passed because of their effort and persistence. 

They were all then given a second more challenging test in which the second group achieved 25% better than the first. In analysis Dr Dweck observed that the group who had been praised for their brilliance were reluctant to expose themselves to failure. The triumphant group had been praised for effort. Failure to them was not a concern. 

The conclusion here was that people who are led to believe they are “special” will struggle with challenges, while those who think intelligence and ability are what matters are more likely to achieve their potential.

This reflects on the latest fashionable psychobabble, Imposter syndrome. I’m fast coming to the conclusion that Imposter Syndrome is simply what happens when someone who has been convinced they are “special” comes face-to-face with the reality that they are not. 

If you believe your reputation is founded on the illusion that you are infallible, rather than common sense and effort, your reluctance to put this to the test in ever-greater challenges is understandable. Eventually, you’ll just want to hide under a rock! You’ll certainly become an obstacle to change in your organisation.

If I’m right, this could be a significant cause of “transforminertia”

I have written and spoken about this the past. Traditional leaders have usually built and run successful businesses, based on the assumption they were infallible. That’s the basis of “command-and-control” management. However, it’s a notion far too easily exposed as nonsense in the digital age and that strikes fear in the heart of these business leaders, who, in response, resist change.

The inclination to avoid reputational risk is a factor in the day-to-day of any business leader in the digital-age. Today, the key to survival is the ability a business has to constantly innovate. The products and services you proffer today are obsolete before you start distributing them and unless you are, by then, already working on their replacements, you’ll not keep up. 

Innovation is very much a product of intelligence and effort. Until digital tech came along to mess things up, it has been very easy to settle back, avoid change and therefore any risk of failure and milk an idea or product for all it is worth, for as long as there is life in it. The problem with that is, these days product life is far too short to sustain a business. 

There are also no cut-and-paste solutions. We are all learning on the job and mistakes are inevitable. Joan Collins is said to have summed it up thus. “Show me someone who has never made a mistake and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t done much”.

More recently Jeff Bezos warned us “The only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility”. That translates as “your ability to constantly re-invent yourself or your organisation is your primary asset”. If you fear failure you simply won’t progress in the digital age. That means the job of today’s leaders is to facilitate experimentation, not to play the infallible dictator.

So, given that transformation is essential to the survival of any organisation and a different, facilitatory management approach must take over from the command-and-control, what’s the plan?

Firstly, it seems obvious that we have to think long and hard about how we motivate kids.

We need to establish “effort” as the gold standard and avoid the tendency to praise kids regardless of their achievements.

Hopefully this will expose the expectation folks seem to have that everyone deserves success as the nonsense it really is and thereby avoid us teaching kids to fail.

Secondly, we need to take a different approach to education

… particularly higher education. In the digital age there’s no such thing as a cut and paste solution to any business problem, yet we still teach as though it were. Education needs to be transformed. It needs to focus on what some would consider to be soft skills. The ability to think around a problem, focus on the real objective and, to quote from popular culture, “go where no man has gone before”.

Next, we need to get away from the notion that the “purpose” of a business is to deliver product.

It’s a fallacy that breeds complacency. In the digital age any product is obsolete by the time it goes into distribution. This is because digital technology gives any competitor the capacity to catch up, overtake your product development and arrive on the market with a solution that’s more refined than yours. 

These days a new product can dominate a market within weeks of launch. You are only as good as your NEXT big idea. That means a product-focussed business is simply unsustainable. The “purpose” of any business is bigger and deeper than product. It’s to solve a customer’s problem. Products are transient. They are how you realise your purpose (this week), not the purpose itself.  The key to success is to know what that problem is and constantly search for and introduce new and better ways to resolve it. This is why we need innovators, liberated from the constraints of old business models and outdated thinking.

They will need to be tough, creative, radical, open-minded, objective and not traumatised by their failures, because there will be many. Without them though, there will be no success either.

It’s crucial we prepare graduates to play their part in tomorrow’s world. We have to get this right, both for the sake of the individuals concerned and the businesses that need them. We certainly can’t continue teaching kids to fail as we have been.

Admittedly it’s a big and complex subject and these three suggestions barely scratch the surface of the problem. Hopefully though, I will have encouraged more radical thinking among business leaders and educators.

What do you think?

Phil Darby
October 10, 2022

Get in touch to start the conversation

Tell us what your challenges are and what you want to achieve and we’ll work with you to plan your success.

    When you submit this form you'll also receive our occasional newsletters.

    Or write to us: Unit 20077, PO Box 15113, Birmingham, B2 2NJ

    Close X Thanks!

    We’re delighted to share our thoughts and ideas with you. Please complete this sign up and your download will start immediately.

      When you submit this form you’ll also get our FREE e-mail newsletter.