Failure is painful. Pain, in general, we avoid. However, like all things we can override our primal drive to avoid pain if we recognize its utility in a cost-benefit ratio analysis. In other words, no pain -- no gain.
Recently I was reading about a high-school teacher's experience concerning the differences between students in 1997, 2007 and now, in 2017. She had numerous things to say, but what stuck with me and, what was the primary driving force of her analysis, was that students today are overwhelmingly lacking self-confidence. She tied this to a fear of failure. They are unwilling to try anything challenging or new without a significant amount of one-on-one guidance and encouragement. Of course, in a classroom of more than thirty students it is impossible to give this type of attention.
While pondering this perspective I became overwhelmed with situations and dynamics that I have experienced and witnessed. Education, ideally, in my mind is a time where failure is a path to learning and growing in ways that initial success -- whether it be by accident or competence, disallows. I started my undergraduate pre-medical studies in my late twenties and because I had that goal of becoming a physician, I felt the pressure to not fail. There were individual tests I failed (not too many, thankfully) but the prerequisite classes for medical school matriculation were very important and a failure would be painful (and while it would be a growing experience I'm glad I didn't have to "grow" in that fashion.) Because of these classes and the rigors involved I came to appreciate my English, literature and writing classes very much. I had one writing instructor for many of my writing classes and after I got to know him I had a discussion concerning my paranoia about my GPA and what it was going to take to get into medical school, and despite my enjoying his classes very much I needed to know what criteria he would use for grading his students. I remember telling him I was concerned that if I tried to branch out, to take risks and write in styles, fashions and themes that I was not already comfortable with, that it would affect my grade. How sad is this? I love writing. I loved his classes and I became a better writer because of them. He was a Ph.D teaching at a University -- he knows how things work and what grades mean for advancement. Obviously, I don't know what he was thinking but I'd like to think that he would recognize the fallacy I'm trying to get into here: that failure is beneficial, provided lessons are learned. I did achieve high marks in all of his classes -- and I think I deserved them, if only because I put forth tremendous effort, which was easy -- after all, it was like a respite from all the chemistry and biology classes -- a chance to exercise the other, starving part of my mind.
I finished highschool in the 1990's. In many ways, in those days, I had a solid, if not misguided, sense self confidence. And while I didn't aspire to further my education at that time, in a rudimentary, incubatory fashion I learned how I wanted to live my life and who I wanted to be through many trial and error type experiences. Many of those experiences, at the time, felt like less like searching for truth than just having fun. And that, precisely is the elixir of youth.
I can easily point to many aspects of modern life that can work to subdue a young person (or, if we're honest with ourselves, all of us regardless of age -- us old fogies simply have the benefit of growing up in a social-media-less environment, among all the other things I'll point out.) However, taking a step back and examining what I think is an important aspect of the human experience will allow a proper framing of what these larger societal shifts and their impact on our emotional life.
Satisfaction and happiness are both dependent functions of an individual's expectations, in any given situation.
I buy a bottle of wine for $10 and I really enjoy it. My expectations were low. The situation was pleasurable. I am satisfied and happy with the purchase and libations.
I buy a $100 bottle of wine. It's okay -- I didn't spit it out. My expectations were high. The situation, while acceptable, lacked in pleasure, relatively. I am less satisfied and happy with the expensive bottle of wine.
And here is the key -- in a vacuum, with mitigating factors such as price, which lead to varying expectations, my enjoyment of the expensive bottle of wine, compared to the $10 bottle, may actually be superior. But it is the function of expectation which dictates which scenario I will prefer.
A child who views the lives of their peers through the filtered lense of social media is comparing their "low-lights" against other's "highlights." Growing from child, to teenager and into adulthood is difficult. It is an emotionally charged out of control train which can leave the tracks.
Pathways to successful careers less plentiful now compared to twenty years ago. Many students are paralyzed by what they see as impossible standards for success. Beauty. Brains. Money. Innate coolness. We see these projections of partial reality and our expectations function to decrease the satisfaction and happiness in our own lives.
We also have a President who refuses to acknowledge any deficiency regardless of how obvious. That man is not the only guilty party -- many people in positions of leadership, at all levels see their grip on power depending on their perceived infallibility. Allowing humanness to shine through, to acknowledge the struggle we all share is tantamount to failure. And, with this perspective, people beholden to such beliefs see failure as a finality of defeat. Temporary setbacks and learning experiences are indicative of incompetence. I see this larger trend in society only serving to exacerbate the spiritual flogging of our society.
The Scientific Method.
To explore our world and search for answers of mechanics and etiology, and of course, the ever juicy -- what if?
Experiments that do not work as expected, even failing to prove a hypothesis are valuable. A student who fails a test can take it as a sign he or she is just not good enough to earn a good grade. Or, they can learn, adapt and grow.
Just as science has been demonized and vilified due to its insistence to recognize facts, our young people have had their psyche and sense of self-worth beaten down with weaponized untruths.
People who do not believe in themselves don't believe they need to be treated well. They will not fight for themselves. Politically, they will prefer finger-pointing and blame-shifting rather than objective determinations, leading to leadership which uses these prods to stay in power. A tried and true technique.
But back to the high school students of 2017. Trite admonishments such as 'it is not how many times you fall down, it is how many times you get back up,' while containing wisdom are lost in the flood of inspirational posters and other catchphrases. And these students are not putting themselves in a place to fall down in the first place -- and this is the key dynamic that I believe the teacher was referring to. And I get it. I remember when I was a pre-teenager who wanted to get into skateboarding, being around the older kids and being scared to try things such as drop-in on a ramp for fear of failing. So I found places where no one else could witness my failings and I kept at it until I felt comfortable in my abilities around others.
Social anxiety has become the new 'nerd' in that it is acceptable to blame, or indulge in what is an honest feeling that I would guess (eschewing my solipsism belief tendencies) all of us have, to some degree or another. And like many other things, pushing through and, even when failing multiple times, persisting leads to self-confidence. This is important, as it is a genuine self-confidence, a manner of existing that doesn't necessarily require the bravado of arrogance or rotting pridefulness. Perhaps my upbringing, where I was endowed with a sense of self-worth, leading to a base foundation of self-confidence as a human being, independent of performance, allowed me to grow in a healthier (subjective analysis, to be sure) fashion than some others. Is that what younger people are missing -- is this what happens when life becomes so measured, metered, quantified, judged and evaluated that we come to feel that our self-worth is based on performance alone?
I don't know.
It seems possible. My ramblings and spontaneous musings while trying to write this are insufficient to fully explore this sweeping generalization encompassing a whole generation. In fact, sometimes when I take a step back, I truly think that us humans, through time are surprisingly steady. A small percentage of us fight for and achieve power. Most of us just want to have fulfilling lives, enjoying our family and a modicum of freedom which money can provide. Often I think that indeed, 'the kids are alright.' But, in order to not completely invalidate my musings I will assert that the innate and supreme fundamental human craving to communicate and ultimately feel understood is being fucked with through our means of mass, personalized communication. Loneliness and forced apathy abounds. I feel it too.