Books That Will Make You Better: The Gift of Failure
The Gift of Failure is a parenting book written by a teacher. While it’s certainly an insightful read for parents and teachers, it’s also directly applicable to managers, and contains interesting ideas that can help anyone in a leadership role.
Identify the problem
Parenting theory is a minefield of conflicting advice, and probably always will be. The Gift of Failure does not espouse a political stance or walk you through step-by-step methods for controlling children; rather, it points out that young people are often incapable of managing their own affairs.
The 8-year-old who always forgets his homework, the college freshman who can’t cook or do laundry and the Dunder-Mifflin sales guy who doesn’t bother generating his own leads all suffer from the same brand of incompetence–because they don’t organize and direct their own activities. They’re dependent on what is given to them, so they don’t contribute to their teams.
This book is written for the people who are responsible for those people.
Why failure is a gift
Frequently, the reason people fail to perform as they should is because they are used to the people in charge taking care of things for them. Lahey urges parents and teachers to give children independence, even if that independence will almost certainly result in failure.
Failure, combined with the child’s continued independence, will teach her more than she could learn by having someone else do things for her. Having freedom and responsibility causes people to become invested in their own actions and development, which is the opposite of the problem described above.
We have all been in situations where the person in charge micromanaged or tried too hard to save us from our own stupidity. I had a professor who realized during the first week of class that almost no one was doing the assigned reading. He started spending the first half of class summarizing the reading so everyone would be caught up and could participate in the discussion. By midterms, even the best students had abandoned the reading list, knowing that he would summarize everything we needed to know. At the end of the course, he lamented that no one did the reading. His effort to shield us from not knowing what was going on ultimately lead to the class deciding that doing the reading wasn’t worth it.
What this means for the rest of us
The only way for teachers, parents and supervisors to develop high-functioning, autonomous individuals is to provide room for them to fail or succeed independently.
For those in less direct leadership roles, ask yourself how you communicate with and influence others. Do you try to get people to complete tasks in your particular way, or do you let them try their own method? Do you nag, or can you trust people to finish their own tasks?
Nobody is just a leader. As a follower, do you wait for someone to tell you exactly what to do and how to do it? Do you have to be reminded, or do you follow up? Everyone has the capacity to take initiative, find better ways to do things and contribute to common goals.
The Gift of Failure is easy to read, but it’s also incredibly well-researched. While the details of the book are centered on school age children, the characteristics and needs identified by Lahey are typical of any person in the process of learning or development, whether that person is an infant or a 40-year-old venturing onto a new career path. This book simultaneously offers insight into how to effectively manage (teach, parent, lead, direct, etc.) autonomous and happy individuals while prompting the reader to become more independent and effective rather than relying on the direction of superiors.