I learned a valuable lesson in 1979 as I mentored a group of high school students. In fact, as the mentor, I’m certain I learned more than they did. During the first three weeks, I felt compelled to build my credibility with these teens. So I consistently worked my achievements into the conversation. It was natural. I wanted these young “mentees” to believe I was a credible leader. Spontaneously, on week four, an unexpected topic surfaced. Without thinking, I became vulnerable. I shared how I had failed miserably when trying to master that topic two years earlier. Suddenly, my small group of students was riveted to my every word. Our discussion moved from superficial to profound. I soon learned a vital principle: People may be impressed with my successes, but they identify with my failures.
After having two kids of my own, I relearned the lesson. As I tucked my children into bed at night, I enjoyed a good story time as we reflected on the day. Inevitably, both of my kids were drawn to stories about my blunders. They loved hearing about (and laughing at) my failures. Soon, they’d ask for them by name. I had a library full of them. In time, I began to practice this habit whenever I was in front of young people — talk about your failures. When I did, I connected. Here’s why:
It invites authenticity.
When I tell a group of students I won an award for a book I wrote, I may amaze them, but I likely will distance myself from the average kid. But when I tell them how I attempted to launch a citywide outreach that flopped, they all connect and want to learn what I did wrong. They want details. I become real.
It invites accessibility.
They may hide behind a veneer of hubris and arrogance, but underneath, kids are packed with insecurities, just like most adults. Talking about what’s gone wrong in your journey makes you approachable. In fact, get ready. They’ll want to talk personally to you. Your flops and fumbles make you accessible to students.
It invites accountability.
This practice actually elicits reciprocal behavior from listeners. They’ll only get as vulnerable as you do. When you pull the curtain back and disclose your imperfect life, they’ll mirror that level of transparency. People do what people see. You grow connected to something larger and attract accountability from the audience.
It invites acceptance.
In our work with NCAA athletic departments, I often encourage coaches to take a moment before a discussion and tell a failure story on themselves. Inevitably, it bonds coach to player and, frequently, player to player. You create safety within the team. This kind of candid story telling cultivates closer teammates.
It invites assessment.
Your own flops and fumbles nudge your listeners to evaluate their own decisions. You don’t even have to tell them to do so. If you offer a window to your own soul, you actually provide a mirror for everyone to see and assess their own. The quickest way to get students to debrief and measure themselves is to do it on yourself.
It invites assurance.
You become a faith-giver. Hearing your personal failures causes kids to view them as a natural part of the journey. After all, you’ve achieved some level of success. If you did so — even with that bonehead thing you did — there’s hope for them. Believe it or not, your mistakes may just be the greatest source of hope for a listener.
It invites action.
Finally, when you offer a tale of your personal failure and add a lesson you learned from it, this beckons listeners to respond with their own action. They learn to be teachable and to act on the hard lessons learned from the school of Hard Knocks. My experience has been: A failure-story and a lesson motivates as fast as anything.
In fact, because adults have fostered a fear of failure among today’s younger generation, this practice may just be the catalyst to enable kids to step out, take calculated risks and try something new. I dare you to fail boldly…and talk about it.
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