My first real screw up happened when I was 19. I had a summer job as an office assistant for a real estate law firm and I sent copies, instead of originals, to the wrong people for an important closing on a land deal. I was fired on the spot – after they made me drive all over town, retrieving all those stupid documents. I spent that long drive (and much of that summer) boo-hooing over my loser status.
But you know what? To this day, I'm a stickler about labeling original documents and clearly marking copies. It's a mistake I'll never make again.
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I thought about that painful experience last month, when I attended the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Education Summit, where business leaders and educators gathered to talk about how to improve our education system and create grads that local companies want to employ. In a series of Town Hall meetings preceding the summit, CEOs and business owners sounded off about their experiences hiring young employees here.
Their biggest complaint? It wasn't that kids today haven't mastered technology or solid writing skills or even office etiquette and attire. It was this: They haven't learned how to fail.
We shower our kids with trophies, ribbons, certificates and stickers to emphasize that it's how you play the game that's important, not whether you win or lose. But in that effort to create a more fair and equitable society, we've neglected to teach our children how to be losers – how to struggle to pull through a crisis, come to terms with their own shortcomings and labor to overcome them. Failure breeds grit and self-control. But kids today have no threshold for suffering because they've never been allowed to feel uncomfortable or unhappy for very long.
Unfortunately, failures happen all the time in the business world. That's how companies grow and improve. That's how breakthroughs happen.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that some companies are starting to recognize employees with "Heroic Failure," "Best New Mistake" and other awards for making mistakes and taking risks. The tactic is rooted in research that shows innovations are often accompanied by a high rate of failure. Creative people churn out a large number of ideas, both good and bad, according to Dean Keith Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California-Davis who has authored more than 500 studies and articles and 12 books on creativity and innovation. As a result, the most successful people tend to be those with the most failures.
It's painful to watch your child fail. Each generation wants its kids to have better lives. But in our quest to protect our kids from pain – and ourselves from feeling like failed parents – we risk eliminating almost every chance our children have to really learn and grow.
While I have a cast of fabulous teachers and coaches to thank for shaping my life with their positive feedback and mentoring, I also owe a great debt to the people who fired me, humiliated and humbled me.
When I was in college, I unsuccessfully applied for an internship at a newspaper in Virginia. The managing editor sent my cover letter back bleeding with red corrections. I was mortified. I hated her. A few weeks ago, I saw this same woman's name pop up as a potential friend on Facebook. I didn't hesitate to shoot her an email. I told her how horrible I felt after I received that letter back.
Then I thanked her.