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Rising Above the Achievement Trap

Any hard-working entrepreneur will agree that the road to success is paved by failure. But for many students, one success after another paves a way as far away from failure as possible.

This Atlantic piece, written by a mother who is also a teacher, dives into a common trap where children value achievement more than learning. They have “sacrificed (their) natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement,” she said. Adding, “And it’s our fault.”

Surely, none of us are strangers to the fear of failure. It’s much more comfortable – as an adult or a child – to stick with what you know and shy away from challenges that may reveal just how much you don’t know. But when we value validation, achievement, and awards more than we value learning, our worldview, experience, and sense of self shrinks.

At Self Development Academy, we know there is value in struggle, and being a lifelong learner is a journey well worth the risk of failure. As parents, you can encourage your children to embrace intellectual bravery. Consider these tips:

  1. Change what you praise. Instead of showing off report cards or tests on the refrigerator, display problems your students are proud of solving – or even better, problems they are still trying to solve. Whether it’s a math equation they haven’t mastered, a self-portrait in progress, or a challenging musical piece, highlighting the process and not the destination will be motivating and validating.
  2. Encourage questions. We are never done learning, and we should never be out of questions. Ask: How does this work? Why did this happen this way in history? Where do we see these patterns in other areas of life?
  3. Share your own failures. Your children see how you react. Show them how to respond to upsetting moments. That dinner you scorched or the house project that ended in splinters and frustration? Your work presentation that bombed? Being positive and believing in your own potential goes a long way in cultivating those skills in your children.
  4. Help them embrace the struggle. When they hit the wall in math, a particular subject becomes boring, or they don’t see any progress in their skills, assure them that this is part of the learning process. There are a lot of ways to embrace the struggle: It’s OK to take a break OR to push through. Switch gears by going to a museum or watching a documentary. Go back a few steps and review material they feel more comfortable with. Struggling shows intelligence, giving up does not.

The point is that regret, guilt, and frustration with ourselves can be motivating or it can be limiting.  We could sit with that emotion and let overwhelm us.  Instead, we should use the discomfort as a sign that we believe in a better version of our self.  This emotion is information that we are capable of change, of improving ourselves.  We are our own greatest strength.  We are our own greatest asset. 

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