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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


The Golden Gate Paradox

One of the most significant discoveries researchers have made on both Millennials and Generation Z (kids growing up since the dawn of the 21st century) is that they have been conditioned to fear failure. Some kids are so paralyzed by the thought of failing, they’ll do anything to avoid it:

  • Quit the team.
  • Cheat on a test.
  • Lie about their results.
  • Never try in the first place.

According to one study, conducted by Bilkent University in Turkey, this fear of failure has gone global in 21st century students. The study found that the “fear of failure at school can negatively affect a student’s motivation and attitude to learn.”

The researchers asked over 1,000 high school and college students to complete surveys about their motivation to learn and the strategies they employed. In the end, they discovered that kids who feared failure at an early age were more likely to create goals to validate their ego rather than help them grow and develop. These students were also less likely to utilize “effective learning strategies” and “more likely to cheat.”

Ouch. Did anyone see this coming?

In 2003, research performed by Wiley Periodicals noted that one of three psychological variables that hinder adolescents' levels of school engagement was the fear of failure. Hmmm. I think I see a pattern here.

The Golden Gate Paradox


There is a great story that informs how we should lead students through this awful fear and liberate them from it. (I share it in my book, Twelve Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid.) In 1933, when the Golden Gate Bridge was being built, the crew fell behind on their deadlines. One of the workers had fallen to his death causing his colleagues to work more slowly each day for fear it might happen again. Finally, one worker approached the supervisor and asked if a net could be placed underneath the men to prevent them from dying if they fell. The supervisor was apprehensive to take the time to do this because they were already behind schedule. But, alas, he agreed and a net was hoisted into position. Suddenly, the men worked faster and more efficiently—actually speeding up the completion of the bridge. What enabled them to work faster and better? Removing the fear of failure. Suddenly, it was safe to try what they had feared before.

I call this the Golden Gate Paradox. Once the workers were liberated from the fear of failure—they could fall without fatality—they worked and succeeded better than ever. And faster then ever. Without the fear of failure, they failed less. The bridge was finished. The foreman met his deadline. The workers were safe. Everyone won.

In the end, people (especially students) need safety nets in order for them to welcome failure as part of the learning process. Safety nets are:

  • Motivating. (They want to jump in, take risks and initiate action.)
  • Liberating. (They feel free to explore, learn and grow without worry.)

What makes this “safety net” act challenging for staff and faculty is removing student’s fear of failure without neglecting to teach the reality of consequences. In other words, far too often we adults have rescued students from their failures, and they never learn to navigate or face the consequences for their mistakes.

Leaders must be dispensers of grace, allowing followers to fail forward, and not quit or flunk out when mistakes are made. This actually enables them to succeed more often and more quickly. However, leaders must also condition followers to weigh out the ramifications for their decisions and actions. So we must balance both:

  • Safety (It’s OK to fail as you learn).
  • Reality (Every action has an outcome).

Suggestions for Safety Nets

Here are some ideas you can tweak to perform the Golden Gate Paradox:

  1. Start by telling stories of your failures, without celebrating them. Liberate the students by revealing that you failed at some past ventures and lived to tell about it. In fact, you learned.
  2. Communicate the boundaries for their mistakes and don’t remove every consequence. Ease them into the new scenario; let them push the envelope.
  3. Host a course called “Failure 101.” More than one school has initiated such a class especially for students who fear it. It’s all about learning from failure.
  4. When possible, offer second chances for fearful students. Many adults are so angry at Gen iY kids, they remove all second chances. This is ultimately harmful.
  5. Gradually, condition them to welcome failure as part of their learning. Expose them to responsibility as they gain more autonomy. These two go together.
  6. Find out what they fear the most and address it. Perhaps they fear looking bad or disappointing mom. Once you help them identify it, address the cause.

Let’s hoist some safety nets and watch our students flourish.


  1. Luke Henke on February 23, 2016 at 9:38 am

    I have a group of high school students who I’m playing the board game Risk with. The way I learned to play was to never allow your opponents to hold a continent, truces only last a turn, and be bold and take risks. I grew exceptionally intrigued when their strategy was to build up, and up, and up, and up. They were more concerned with who they were “chill” with and didn’t break continents.
    I asked them about their play style and they said, “Mr. Henke, we want to feel safe first.”

    On another note, I want my students to establish the mentality of “Mistakes are welcome, as long as you are willing to fix them.” Because of this, they can retake or redo practically anything in my classroom. I don’t do extra credit. I’ve had students who have overcome test anxiety because they know that if they are unsuccessful, they have a safety net. They become less fearful of the test and after that first test where they lost their focus and had to retake it, they don’t even need retakes later. The focus is on the learning.
    I have learned one thing as I work to shift focus on learning is that I must also measure out responsibility too. So I keep track of late or missing assignments as a separate grade. This allows students and parents to easily see that the issue may not be with their knowledge, but work ethic. That always sparks a great conversation.

    • Tim Elmore on February 24, 2016 at 3:40 pm

      Thanks for joining in the discussion, Luke. That is a fascinating observation of students playing Risk. What a shift from the way you and I learned how to play.

      I love the way you lead your classroom. Thank you for shifting the focus to learning and helping students learn to take responsibility and to increase work ethic.

      Keep up the great work. Educators like you are my heroes.


  2. Michele Curlee on February 27, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    At first I thought, how can that be a failure paradox? But, upon thinking of the origin of the word mortified and that fear of public speaking tops the fears list…well, you are right. Fear of living through a public failure is only second to death in stopping us in our tracks. I also suspect adults and previous generations are far behind in the level that this effects them. Perhaps previous generates had more stable and accessible social safety nets to ameliorate this ubiquitous fear.

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The Golden Gate Paradox