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Get Your Kids to Put Down Their Phones and Go Fail at Something

December 21, 2019

I’ve worked as a life and career counselor for over a decade and have spent many years researching what leads people to live lives that flourish. My biggest discovery? People who are happy and successful have a knack for failing forward. They deliberately seek out opportunities beyond their ability—even if they may flub it—because they realize it’s the best way to challenge themselves and grow. This approach allows them to rapidly develop new skills and encounter experiences that benefit their lives in unexpected ways.

Ryan Babineaux


When I visited Falling Creek Camp to share my ideas with the staff, I was pleased to discover the concept of failing forward is at the heart of how the camp works with its campers. As Frank Tindall, the associate director said, “Our camp provides a unique opportunity and supportive environment for boys to make their own decisions and reach beyond their comfort zones—free from the high expectations and micro-management sometimes found at home.”

The boys are continually encouraged to try things outside their comfort zones—whether it’s rock climbing, blacksmithing, or backpacking the Appalachian Trail—and while doing so, are encouraged to embrace failure. On your first day mountain biking, you’re not expected to tear down the mountain (and you’re likely to fall); on your first day canoeing, you may hit the rapids wrong and swamp. No big deal— just pick yourself up and try again.

Take the Pressure Off

Something that is continually reinforced throughout camp, whether it’s at Morning Watch or in a oneon-one pep talk with a counselor, is that it’s okay to fail. Try things, allow yourself to be imperfect, and gradually improve. This is such a simple message, but it’s one that is not always part of every child’s life. Today, many kids are pressured to excel—to achieve higher grades, to perform better in sports, to stand out as leaders. This expectation leaves little freedom to experiment and make mistakes. But research shows pushing the boundaries and taking chances is where the greatest learning and discoveries occur.

Here are a few pointers on how to keep the failing forward spirit alive in your kids:

  • Encourage your children to enjoy being beginners at new things. If they only focus on what they’re already good at, they’re going to miss out on a lot in life.
  • Show your own willingness to be a goof and make mistakes. How about family Karaoke night or salsa dancing? And don’t forget to share your own stories of times when you have struggled and failed.
  • Support your children in pursuing their curiosity widely, without worrying about expected payoffs. (But, how will learning to hang-glide improve your chances of being admitted college? Who cares!)
  • Instill a passion for experimentation and continual learning. The most important life lessons usually happen outside of school.
  • Praise your children for effort (“Great job. I’m glad you gave it a try!”), not for performance or ability.
  • Support your children in finding simple, lowcost ways to explore their interests and test their ideas—jot down a story; try selling your hand-tied fishing flies at the swap meet; make a low-res video game to amuse your friends. Too often, people’s perfectionism makes them unwilling to take that vital first step toward pursuing their dreams.

Consider the Possibilities

During my presentation at Falling Creek Camp, I included activities, such as juggling and building spaghetti towers, that were designed to get participants to have fun and fail. I know from experience that once I get people to be silly and make mistakes it becomes easier for them to lighten up and consider new possibilities.

During breaks, some of the camp counselors came up to introduce themselves and ask for advice. Wesley, a bright and charming young man, told me he was in his third year in a business program, but he had recently discovered that he was more excited about product design. Another university had a fantastic design school that he loved—he had visited the campus, sat in on a class, met with some students, and felt excited and at home. He described how, for fun, he liked to come up with innovative ideas for new products. Wesley was considering switching to design school but was hesitant because it would take an additional year to graduate. He asked me what I thought he should do. I could see that he was asking for encouragement—or even permission—to follow his heart. I told him that an extra year of school wouldn’t matter if he found a line of work he truly loved. And graduating early wasn’t going to be much of a benefit if he was plunged into a career he dreaded. I hope Wesley had the courage to make the change.

This interaction brings to mind the last tip I have for parents: Remind your kids that life is a sacred journey, to be cherished each step of the way. As your children change and grow, they should be encouraged to pursue new possibilities that keep their inner spark alive. Too many people spend decades pursuing a hastily selected path out of some sense of obligation long after their interest and passion have faded.

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