Building grit and resilience

During my first week at LEH, the focus of my talks to staff and girls has been on risk-taking. Those who know me will recognise this: I think I am fairly well-known for my attitude towards ‘failure’. A few years ago, Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge, wrote an article for the Guardian in which she spoke about how the fear of failure holds you back and that we must show girls that risk-taking is a good thing (see The Guardian).

I wonder whether your daughters know that you have failed at things in your life? In my experience, students are remarkably unaware of the failures you or I may have gone through before reaching our current position. They think that failure only happens to, well, “failures” – we know that failure happens to everyone.

Most LEH girls, because they are highly intelligent and because they are protected (by family and by school), can sail through their young lives without much experience of failure. For some, the driving test or the UCAS process is their first experience of it. I am not sure that we are doing them any favours if we lead them to believe that life can be lived to the full without facing failure from time-to-time. Life can be lived without much chance of failure: but what sort of life would that be? A life with no risk-taking, because all risks, by definition, include the possibility of failure, is probably a life with no great achievements either. How rewarding is it to be excellent at something which we know, in our hearts, is neither difficult nor demanding? Do we want to lie on our death beds thinking “If only…..”?

Examples from the world of sports illustrate very well what I’m getting at: if athletes only entered races that they knew they were very likely to win, there wouldn’t have been many runners on the starting line of the Men’s 100m Final at the London Olympics in 2012. Yet they were all there, aiming for their own ‘personal bests’: more on this at a later date!

I do not advocate teaching pupils to fail. I advocate teaching them to be courageous and to take risks. We then support them in coping with failure, if it occurs. In other words, I advocate teaching resilience and robustness in the face of all that life throws at you.

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