I’d like to tell you a story about how 13 grams of wood and the tears of a 10-year-old changed the way I look at success.
When my daughter was six years old I started coaching her in a program called Destination Imagination. It’s a creative problem-solving program that teaches kids how to think creatively by giving them challenges that involve building, performance, and teamwork. It’s basically a boot camp for overcoming obstacles.
In her fifth year of the program their challenge was to build a structure out of 13 grams of wood that would support the maximum weight possible. That’s the equivalent of three standard pencils.
The reactions from the kids to these challenges always followed three phases.
First there was, “Huh, that’s impossible!”
Second, there was, “Wait, what if we do this?”
Third, there was, “Aha, if we combine this way and that way it might just work!”
When they had finally figured out a way to solve the challenge I’d praise them for their ingenuity and then I’d say, “That’s great. Now, make it better!”
Their initial reaction was always, “But how are we going to do that?” Most often even I wasn’t sure how, but even if I did have an idea Destination Imagination has a strict policy of non-interference from anyone outside the team, especially adults. They had to figure it out on their own. I’d watch them fail over and over at ideas I knew would not work. But then they’d come up with something I was convinced was absolutely ridiculous–amazingly, it would work!
Over the years I got accustomed to suspending my disbelief and they got accustomed to just blowing through failure after failure, unfazed and unfrazzled, bouncing off of obstacles like little amoebas looking for their way through a maze.
The structure that they built during this particular season held nearly 100 pounds; pretty impressive for 13 grams of wood. That’s a ratio of 1:3,500, or, to put it into perspective, that would be like me holding up a SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket! Their structure came complete with buttresses and anti torque cross members; an engineering marvel that should have gained them admittance to MIT–on full scholarships.
“…they got accustomed to just blowing through failure after failure, unfazed and unfrazzled, bouncing off of obstacles like little amoebas looking for their way through a maze.”
Yet, on competition day, when the time came to test it in front of an audience of hundreds in the school gymnasium, this marvel of fifth grade engineering collapsed under less than 20 pounds! They were devastated, their spirits crushed just as suddenly as their structure. Watching all of their hard work and enthusiasm squashed under a measly twenty pounds broke my heart
I tried to console them after the competition but my daughter was nowhere to be found. I searched the school looking for her and finally found her hiding under the stairwell, hugging her knees, and sobbing uncontrollably. I had that horrid feeling that every parent knows all too well; that teachable moment when you struggle to find something profound to say: “It’s ok honey;” “You did your best; “There will be another day;” “You’ll learn from your mistakes;” But none of that sounded sincere.
Instead I reached out to her, held her hands, propped up her chin to look at her, and said, “I’m proud of you for crying.”
She looked at me with eyes swollen, tears running down her cheeks, and asked “Why?”
“Because it mattered to you enough to feel this strongly about it. You should be proud that you care this much because that’s why you’ll succeed at the really important things in life. What’s important to me is not how well your structure held up, it’s how well you hold up.”
Mia held up pretty well; she stayed in the program for seven more years, making it to the state finals twice, and eventually coaching her own team.
At some point in our life–usually a very early age, well beyond where our adult memory can reach–we start to keep track of our failures. Before that point failure does not exist, only signposts that redirect us towards success. Not coincidentally, that’s when neuroscientists tell us we learn the fastest.
“…their tenacity outlives that of their peers, their commitment outpaces their fear, and their relentless ambition eventually outweighs their failures.”
As we mature most of us become masters at keeping track of failures; our own and those of the people around us. We tally all of the reasons why something won’t work. And yet, when I look at the people I know who have succeeded, in a big way, it’s clear that they don’t do a good job of keeping track, they just plow forward; their tenacity outlives that of their peers, their commitment outpaces their fear, and their sense of purpose eventually outweighs their failures.
“But wait,” you’re saying, “failure has economic consequences.” Yes, indeed, failure has many consequences. Paving a path to success is also one of them. Take a lesson from a 10-year-old, stop keeping track and keep moving forward.
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.