Last year there was a firestorm around Yale professor Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”In it, she details how she raised successful children. Among her rules: Her children never attended a sleepover, had a play date, performed in a school play, watched TV, or received a grade less than an ‘A.’ She also criticized her children if they didn’t achieve.
Response to Battle Hymn ranged from venomous to awestruck. And an emotional debate erupted about what the best way is to achieve academic, professional and social success. In addition to this battle, Chua’s book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 11 weeks. Controversial parenting methods aside, it seems people were fascinated with the book—and the idea of achieving success at all costs.
After all, our culture appears to revere success, while failure has become taboo—it’s almost a dirty word, for some.
Failure in today’s context
“I think our culture fears failure,” says University of Phoenix faculty member Jean Coleman. Coleman teaches for the College of Social Sciences and is the subject matter expert for the University’s Positive Psychology workshop. “[Adults] swoop in before [kids] can make a mistake. [Kids] are being taught that a mistake is something to be avoided at all costs. Failure is not an option.”
Joseph Cuseo, professor Emeritus of Psychology at Marymount College, agrees that many in the younger generation have lived a life with safety nets, which does not allow room for failure. In such cases, the parents tend to make everything better for the kids. “So success is almost guaranteed,” he says. “The struggle is not there.” While this may feel good in the moment, it’s obviously not what life will deliver over the long haul. Which is why Cuseo says, “this group may need a wake-up call.”
Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, also believes that the younger generation has a harder time with failure than previous generations did. “Of course, everyone fears failure,” Twenge explains. “But this generation fears failure more. They see things as more high stakes. They often tell me that things are more competitive than for their parents’ generation.” Twenge is also the author of “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before.”
The consequences of abundant praise
But where did this increased fear of failure come from? According to Twenge, at least some of it can be traced back to our culture’s increased focus on individualism in the 1970s. This cultural shift led to a ubiquitous effort to bolster people’s self-esteem in order to achieve greater success. So parents, teachers and coaches started to praise rather than criticize. And youth started being praised for nearly everything. Head to the local playground today and you’ll hear this cultural phenomenon at work. Johnny slid down the slide? “Good job, Johnny.” Emma swung the bat at a ball? “Good job, Emma.” Aiden ran in a circle? “Good job, Aiden.” In the workplace, managers are now coached to use a “criticism sandwich,” which cushions criticism between praise.
Abundant praise does seem like it would be helpful and encouraging—and would lead to greater success. But evidence shows the opposite may be true: It may actually discourage people from working and achieving. Children often stop trying because they’re so used to praise that they learn to not want to make mistakes or to fail. This research, conducted by Stanford Psychology Professor Carol Dweck and published in 2007, shows that praise can actually discourage motivation. Once this belief is learned, it can follow a person into adulthood, continuing to discourage motivation and work in a professional setting. According to Dweck, ever-present praise doesn’t work because it’s not specific and it focuses on the end result rather than on effort.
Does high self-esteem equal better grades?
If all this praise hasn’t led to the desired results, at least people’s self-esteem is bolstered, right? Not so fast. Self-esteem boosting also may not have achieved the intended consequences.
Roy F. Baumeister, psychology professor at Florida State University, retracted many assumed benefits of nurturing self-esteem in a 2005 Los Angeles Times commentary. He explains that the American Psychological Society commissioned him and other experts to review published self-esteem research. “Here are some of our disappointing findings,” he writes. “High self-esteem in schoolchildren does not produce better grades. … In fact, according to a study by Donald Forsyth at Virginia Commonwealth University, college students with mediocre grades who got regular self-esteem strokes from their professors ended up doing worse on final exams than students who were told to suck it up and try harder.”
Does high self-esteem equal better job performance?
Self-esteem also doesn’t make adults perform better at their jobs. Baumeister notes that people with high self-esteem report that their performance is better. They even say that they are smarter and better looking than those who have low self-esteem do. “[B]ut neither objective tests nor impartial raters can detect any difference in the quality of work,” he writes.
Neither does self-esteem predict who will make a good leader. According to an article by Robert Hogan and Robert B. Kaiser published in the Review of General Psychology in 2005, incompetent managers have a variety of personality characteristics, including that they are overly self-confident. Such a trait does make a good impression in the short run, according to the authors. For instance, those who score highly in narcissism initially seem confident and charismatic. “Over time, however, these features turn into a sense of entitlement and an inability to learn from mistakes,” write the authors. On the other hand, the authors found that humility rather than self-esteem seems to be a key trait of successful leaders.
This brings us back to the heart of the matter. Why all the talk about kids and children who were praised and stroked their whole life? They become your students, your colleagues and sometimes even the boss.
Consequences of fearing failure
While focusing on praise and self-esteem has not increased academic or professional success, it has bolster the idea that we should feel good about ourselves all the time—for no particular reason, says San Diego State’s Twenge.
But when the goal is simply to feel good about yourself, the costs are high, according to an article published by University of Michigan’s Jennifer Crocker in Psychological Inquiry An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory in 2003. When a person’s motivation is simply to feel good and prove one’s worth, that person starts to fear becoming a failure. Driven by these fears, she writes, “people will go to many lengths to succeed, including arguing, scheming and cheating,” even if these behaviors stop you from accomplishing another goal, such as making a contribution to the workplace.
In short, protecting self-esteem becomes the primary goal. And when faced with failure, rather than “realistically confronting our shortcomings and mistakes” they may find excuses for it, they may blame others, or they may dismiss the task’s importance.
So, while abundant praise isn’t something we encounter in higher education or in boardrooms—we are not praised for stapling well or for doing lackluster work—the ramifications live on. On the one hand, innovation can suffer in the workplace. After all, if people don’t want to fail, there is the risk that they won’t put forward unique ideas.
This doesn’t mean that low self-esteem is the answer, though. We need to have enough self-esteem so that we can work toward goals despite having self-doubt, fears of failure or feelings of worthlessness, Crocker writes. She adds that if self-esteem is bolstered as a result, that is an added bonus.
Failure is essential to success
Another problematic issue of mainly pursuing self-esteem is that the learning process itself is put at risk. “When our goal is self-esteem, we are focused on what we are now, not what we need to become,” Crocker writes. “And because we want to feel worthy, we are not realistic about our strengths and weaknesses, where we need to improve, what we have accomplished and what we still need to accomplish.” High or low self-esteem aside, failure, it turns out, is central to the possibility of true learning.
Marymount College’s Cuseo points out, “you never develop resilience if you don’t have a setback. You never have the opportunity to develop that skill. Failure gives anyone the ability to say, ‘What if I tried harder, smarter, or used other resources?’”
University of Phoenix faculty member Coleman agrees. “Failure is essential to success. I don’t think there are very many people who succeed who haven’t failed first.”
Helping students better define failure
Of course, failure for different people means different things. Some consider getting a ‘B’ to be a failure. For others, getting a ‘D’ or ‘F’ means failure. While the definition varies, as a faculty member, handling perceived failure is almost always sticky.
One of the best ways for faculty to handle student failure is to help students get over their fear of it. Rather than stressing the need to succeed at all costs, students may do better in school if they are taught that failure is just part of learning, according to research by Frederique Autin and Jean-Claude Croizet, with the University of Poitiers and the National Center for Scientific Research in France.
Article by Heather Holiday
We went out kayaking with friends over the weekend and took some great photos. I couldn’t wait to post them on Facebook so that I could share my photos with them and hopefully they would do the same with photos they took of us. It got me thinking about how important photos are to us and why that is true. After all, the saying that, “A picture is worth 10,000 words” has endured for generations now and has lost none of its truth.
When we consider why we like to take photos, many truths come to light. We love visiting people and places that are special and preserving the occasion by taking a photo. We love reliving those times when we go through the pictures we have taken. But isn’t there something special about sitting down with someone and sharing our pictures with them? Somehow the captured moments seem brighter and more alive when we share them with someone else. Facebook, Flikr and other photo sharing sites certainly understand this psychology well!
Acting as photographers, we portray truths about; our perception of what is important, our creativity, our emotions, our identities but even more importantly, we portray truths about our relationships.
I was watching Christmas pictures being taken of the different segments of a blended family recently. One side of the family posed naturally so that each person was touching at least two other people and the group was definitely seen as one cohesive unit. The other side of the family needed a little more encouragement! They originally posed without one single person touching anyone else! When the photographer chided,”Act like you like each other!” one of the adult sons whacked another over the head and then they all held hands and grinned at the camera as a family unit! It turned out to be one of the family’s favorite pictures from that Christmas!
This is what’s important…. the relationships. Sometimes it’s about the relationship among the people in the picture, sometimes it’s about the relationship between the photographer and his subject and still other times it’s about the relationship between the two people who are viewing a photograph together. Photographs cement relationships.
The joy that comes from looking at a picture isn’t always about happy memories.I remember arranging to have a four-generations picture taken with my grandmother, my mother, me and my children, one of whom was an infant. Everyone was dressed in Sunday best, everyone put his or her best face forward until our littlest member lost it, just as we were called in to sit for the photographer. She started screaming at the top of her lungs and there was nothing that any of us could do to make her stop. Finally we decided to just go ahead and try to just get a picture anyway. This poor man did his best but in every single shot, she was either screaming bloody murder or she was photographed when she had paused to catch her breath and she was blotchy, swollen and red-faced from crying. Whenever we look at that picture, those of us who can remember the incident always laugh, though it certainly wasn’t funny at the time!
I have another photograph of my father in a life vest. Now my father was in the Navy, is an excellent swimmer and taught each of his children how to swim and dive well enough so that they were able to compete on high school and college teams. When I was growing up, my family always had a boat and this one photograph is the only time I’ve ever seen my father don a life jacket. We were on a rented boat, off the east coast of South Florida, in a storm so ferocious that it had knocked out the steering on our flying bridge. We couldn’t see 2 feet in front of the boat and we were lost. Seeing my father put on a life jacket, I just knew I was going to die! My sister and I ate our last meal together (cold SpaghettiO’s out of the can!) and were thoroughly surprised to actually live through the experience when the fog and rain lifted and we were in the middle of the Miami shipping channel!
The joy of looking at pictures isn’t necessarily about what was going on in the picture, it’s about the relationships that are forged before, during, after and at the time of viewing them. So let’s take pictures and not forget to share them, all the while remembering that we are strengthening precious bonds between ourselves and the people who are important to us by doing so!
Recently, I was horrified to see St. Petersburg, Florida named the saddest city in the United States by a popular men’s magazine and Tampa wasn’t far behind it. I was thrilled to see the enthusiasm with which our citizens refuted the magazine’s findings in letters to the editor, articles, blogs and even in spoofs on the cover of the men’s magazine! And while the science in the original article was far from conclusive, some of the statistics mentioned, were.
How can it be that our area chalks up such substantial statistics in the areas of: suicide, depression and substance abuse when we enjoy one of the most beautiful places to live in the world? This question is especially pertinent when we look at these skyrocketing statistics among our youth.
Enter the relatively young branch of psychology known as Positive Psychology, the theme of the latest Harvard Business Review. Splitting from traditional psychology, with its emphasis on diagnosing mental health disorders, Positive Psychology focuses on helping people to identify their strengths and then encourages growth in those areas.
Resilience is identified as the ability to adapt successfully to sources of adversity and stress… In other words, it is the ability to bounce back from life’s challenges without feeling defeated by them. This characteristic of resilience leads to some of the character traits that we value the most as a society, self-esteem, optimism, perseverance, and self-efficacy. The US Army has partnered with the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Martin Seligman to implement a $145 million resiliency training program aimed at providing, among other things, Post Traumatic Stress Growth as a viable alternative to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
How can we explain the nation’s recent obsession with Florida Gator, turned Denver Broncos Quarterback, Tim Tebow? He is the poster-boy for resilience! He embodies this can-do attitude of overcoming HUGE obstacles with grace and style!
While resilience can be a natural characteristic to some people, in others it doesn’t come as easily. The good news is that resilience can be taught and the better news is that the scientific evidence concludes that it is never too early (or too late) in life to successfully learn and/or strengthen this ability!
Developing resilience is a personal journey and starting to strengthen this quality in oneself, one’s family and/or one’s business can be the key to individual and even corporate well-being! You may need a guide to help you do this and we have had a lot of success coaching people as they grow from success to real significance.
At the stroke of midnight (or as shortly afterwards as possible) each January 1st we endeavor to be the first to wish our family and friends, “Happy New Year!” This year I encourage each of us to really think about what this means and to really mean what you say when you use this greeting.
When people are asked what they wish most for, whether it is for themselves or for their children, they usually reply, “I just want (them) to be happy!” Amazingly enough, the wishes are not for a large flatscreen TV, new model car, or any other material possession. The wish is for something that seems to be completely intangible and yet… is it really?
Recent empirical research shows that happiness has multiple physical and psychological benefits for people, such as:
- Optimistic people are much less likely to die of heart attacks than pessimists, controlling for all known physical risk factors (Giltay et al., 2004).
- People who are happy have stronger immune systems and suffer fewer and/or less severe illnesses than do people who are not as happy (Cohen et al., 2006).
- The pursuit of meaning and engagement are much more predictive of life satisfaction than the pursuit of pleasure (Peterson et al., 2005).
- Economically flourishing corporate teams have a ratio of at least 2.9:1 of positive statements to negative statements in business meetings, whereas stagnating teams have a much lower ratio; flourishing marriages, however, require a ratio of at least 5:1 (Gottman & Levenson, 1999; Fredrickson & Losada, 2005).
- Happy teenagers go on to earn substantially more income 15 years later than less happy teenagers, equating for income, grades, and other obvious factors (Diener et al., 2002).
- How people celebrate good events that happen to their spouse is a better predictor of future love and commitment than how they respond to bad events (Gable et al., 2004).
So, this year, when you wish someone, “Happy New Year,” I hope these are some of the things that you are wishing for them!!!
So as the New Year approaches and you make your resolution to be more fit in 2012, grab your kid and your parent and make it a family affair! You’ll all be happier, healthier and SMARTER!!!