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Nothing to Fear


Last week, Edutopia posted this except from an interview with Angela Duckworth on Instagram.

In case you’re not familiar with Angela Duckworth’s work, you should know she is

co-founder, chief scientist, and a board member of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance scientific insights that help children thrive. She is also the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change for Good Initiative, and faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics.

A 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Angela has advised the World Bank, NBA and NFL teams, and Fortune 500 CEOs.

Prior to her career in research, Angela founded a summer school for underserved children where was profiled as a Harvard Kennedy School case study and, in 2018, celebrated its 25th anniversary. She has also been a McKinsey management consultant and a math and science teacher at public schools in New York City, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.

Angela completed her undergraduate degree in Advanced Studies Neurobiology at Harvard, graduating magna cum laude. With the support of a Marshall Scholarship, she completed an MSc with Distinction in Neuroscience from Oxford University. She completed her PhD in Psychology as a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

Angela’s TED talk is among the most-viewed of all time. Her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is a #1 New York Times best seller. Angela is also co-host, with Stephen Dubner, of the podcast No Stupid Questions.

In fact, a common way of referring to the MacArthur Fellowship is by using the phrase, “Genius Grant.” In other words, Duckworth is no joke. I read her book Grit and reference her work in my first book, Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal).

Yet, when I read the quote in the Instagram post, my brain went to another writer, Candi B. McCay, author of the book, You Don’t Have to Be Bad to Get Better. According to her website,

Candi’s work as an educator and president of McKay Consulting Group demonstrates her passion for learning and the belief that all educators have the potential to grow and “get better”. Guided by a growth mindset, Candi thrives on creating opportunities for educators at every level to reach their greatest potential, which in turn, will help all students to do the same. A frequent national speaker on the topics of instructional leadership, professional conversation, and teacher learning, Candi works extensively with school leadership teams to enhance their skills in classroom observation, collegial conversation, and professional learning.

I had the good fortune to hear McKay speak several years ago and, like Duckworth, I reference her in my first book (p. 180).

I recently heard Candi McKay say, “I’ve never met an intellectually lazy four year old.” She specifically used the age of four because students typically enter kindergarten at five. Her point was twofold. First, humans are naturally curious. If you have ever spent any time around a child prior to the age of five, you will see perpetual motion, curiosity, a lack of fear to fail, and/or a zeal to try to do new things … Humans are wired to enjoy learning. If this is true, then why is it also true that sometime between our first day of kindergarten and when we graduate from high school, we often forget that we once enjoyed learning? This is the second reason why McKay used the age of four. Something environmental about school has an adverse impact on our natural curiosity as humans. Rather than helping to foster our innate interest in learning, for far too many of us, school teaches us to stifle our curiosity and replace it with compliance.

I find it interesting that I included the statement, “If you have ever spent any time around a child prior to the age of five, you will see … a lack of fear to fail.” This is exactly why when I read the Edutopia post, I thought to myself,

I don’t think people are naturally afraid to fail; I think they are taught to fear failure.

If we were naturally afraid of failure, we would never learn to walk or talk. We would never learn to feed ourselves. We would give up when we didn’t get what we wanted as an infant or toddler. However, that’s not what happens. Infants, babies, waddlers, and toddlers are unabashedly persistent. They fall and get right back up. They are told no and yet often keep going. They don’t think, “I’ve failed and so I should not do that again;” they think, “I’ve failed so I have to keep trying.”

So, while I think, who am I to argue with Angela-MacArthur-Genius-Duckworth when she says, “it’s human to fear failure,” I can’t help but put risk failure by questioning this assertion.

While humans may learn to fear failure, I’m not sure that humans inherently have a fear of failure. This doesn’t mean I disagree with the concept of humans fearing failure; I disagree that fearing failure is a fear humans are born with.

Regardless of if fearing failure is learned or innate, I appreciate Duckworth’s suggestions in the Edutopia interview of how to teach a different response to situations that might trigger negative emotions through perceived failure. According to the interview,

By embracing failure, we open ourselves up to new possibilities, innovative thinking, and personal development. Failure serves as a stepping stone toward success, providing us with valuable lessons, resilience, and the motivation to keep striving for our goals. Rather than avoiding failure, we should view it as a necessary part of the journey towards achievement, for it is through our failures that we gain the wisdom and insight necessary to ultimately succeed. It is essential to recognize that failing to make an attempt is, in fact, more detrimental than encountering failure as a result of trying.

In other words, if we can learn to be afraid of failure, we can also learn to embrace it as an opportunity to learn.


P.S. My Catch of the Week is the thought-provoking and deeply impactful book Women Talking by Miriam Toews. Set in a Mennonite colony, the novel tells the powerful and inspiring story of a group of women who gather in secret to discuss and confront the traumatic experiences of abuse they have endured within their community. Toews brilliantly captures the essence of these women's voices, struggles, and resilience in the face of unimaginable adversity.

The strength of Women Talking lies in its exploration of themes such as agency, courage, and the power of collective action. Through the authentic and compelling voices of the female characters, the author delves into complex issues surrounding gender inequality, religious oppression, and the dynamics of community. The book is a poignant exploration of the ways in which marginalized individuals can come together to reclaim their narratives and fight for justice.

Women Talking is a profound and timely novel that sparks important conversations about gender, power, and the strength of the human spirit. It is a testament to the enduring power of storytelling and the potential for collective action to bring about meaningful change. This book is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in stories of resilience, social justice, and the triumph of the human spirit.

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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