The Power of Failure
After a week of cool but unusually sunny weather in southern Scotland, I arrived in Fort William, ready to tackle an easy trail on Ben Nevis. I needed to get my first lungful of Highland air, and stock supplies for the next 7 days of hiking the Great Glen Way.
The rain hit first thing in the morning. A sprinkle at first, then sheets of icy drizzle, then a downpour. This did not surprise me. It is Scotland, after all. I had rain gear and waterproof hiking boots and a good supply of single-malt.
What did surprise me was the number of parents with kids out on what was now a treacherously slick path, headed uphill. One family was picking its way up the rocky slope just ahead of me.
The girl, who looked to be about 10 or 11, was constantly bombarded with advice, directions and cautionary commentary.
“Watch out!” they yelled at her. “Be careful!” “Don’t hurt yourself!”
And my personal favorite: “You’re getting mud in your hair!”
The boy, who was younger and smaller, received far different guidance:
“Did you fall? You’re all right. Get up, keep moving.”
“Wow, isn’t that mountain big? Look at that!”
“Tighten your boot laces. Adjust your poles. The rocks are slippery.”
We crested the trail at roughly the same time, all of us cold, wet, muddy and miserable. (I was perhaps not as miserable as the rest. I had the scotch, after all.)
The girl was asked again and again if she’d been scared, and told how brave she was, and reminded to fix her hair.
The boy got a high-five and a, “That was pretty cool, huh?”
(Full disclosure: all my righteous indignation for this kid evaporated when she turned to me and asked, “Hey, how old are you anyway?” But that’s not the point.)
The point is that, all too often, this is how boys and girls learn about their capabilities.
Boys learn to make their decisions in spite of fear.
Girls learn to let fear make their decisions.
Boys learn to keep trying, to endure pain or difficulty, to stand their ground.
Girls learn to hesitate, to react to the smallest discomfort, to stand and wait.
Upon my return from Scotland, I gave a talk to a group of executives about how hiking solo builds leadership skills.
The men in the room asked: How did you train for that? What amazing things did you see and do? What was it like? Are you glad you went? Where are you going next?
Women wanted to know: How did you get off work? What did you do about your kids/elderly parents/pets? How much did it cost?
Weren’t you afraid?
Have I been afraid, lost in the woods with darkness coming on? Have I been afraid, realizing I’m on the wrong bus to the wrong city? Have I been afraid, alone and unsure and unable to speak the local language?
Of course I have.
Would I trade feeling safe for feeling accomplished?
Not a chance.
The only antidote to fear is action. We teach that to our boys, relentlessly. Why not our girls?
If you want girls to succeed, you have to let them fail. Let them get dirty and hungry. Let them discover the right trail after three false turns. Let them see the sunrise from a raft on a raging river. Let them figure out the bus schedule in a foreign city, or live on cheese and apples and cold showers for a few days, or strike up conversations with interesting strangers.
Let them learn to trust their own judgment at the top of a cliff — and find out that they can trust it anywhere. Everywhere.
Let them discover for themselves how capable they are.
Let some little girl in the future watch them hike up a mountain and ask, “Just how old are you, anyway?”
That internal sense of accomplishment can only be earned through effort — and many failures — not bestowed with compliments and canned praise.
Once earned, though, it is never lost.