School of hard knocks

10 May

If someone says you’re good, what do you learn? Very little. But if you (or your work) are deemed poor, then there are valuable lessons in the experience and in the feedback.

Educators want all students to succeed, but know that easy success brings few lessons.

One of the more memorable chapters from Ed Smith’s excellent What Sport Tells Us About Life is called ‘the curse of talent’. He cites an academic study from the US tracking the fortunes of a group of high school beauty queens. ‘Fifteen years on, the high-school beauty queens were typically doing worse – in terms of wealth, careers and even happiness – than their less good-looking contemporaries. They had peaked too early.’

In education, failure is deemed as, well, failure (and the f word is even banished from discussions). Yet, as Ed Smith writes about sports coaching and sibling rivalry, ‘experiencing small formative early defeats made for subsequent large victories… Formative defeats are usually a central strand in any successful sportsman’s story – because failure, for almost every athlete, is written into the script.’

MichaelYoung In last night’s remarkable Endgame on Channel 4, a corporate public affairs man played an ultimately successful part in discussions to end apartheid in South Africa. Yet he was continually being talked over and having his agenda disrupted by the stronger personalities involved in the story. He suffered many minor defeats but emerged a quietly heroic figure (and the history of public relations has too few public heroes). (Here’s an interview with the real-life character, Michael Young; it will make you reconsider the place of public relations in conflict resolution.)

The recession will give many of us opportunities to experience failure. Let’s hope we can at least learn some valuable lessons from this.

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