Last Friday, my wife sent me an e-mail that contained a time, an address, and these words “Guest speaker Megan McArdle will discuss her new book  ‘The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success.’ She is also a Bloomberg columnist and economics blogger.”  Those who know me or read my posts on a regular basis can likely guess my reaction, just as my wife did. I raced home from work, changed and made the drive to hear what Megan had to say. It’s always interesting, and often validating, to listen to someone else speak and hear things that you have said, thought, and/or written about. That was the case for me that evening. Unfortunately, Megan had to leave immediately after the talk, so I didn’t get to speak privately with her. There were three things she shared that specifically caught my attention:

  1. Give yourself permission to suck
  2. Take classes where an “A” is not guaranteed
  3. Stop rewarding those who take the easy path

I don’t know about you, but there are some things in life that I am just not good at. Oddly enough, many of the things that I am not good at are enjoyable to me. Most of us tend to shy away from the things that are not in our wheelhouse, while others just don’t care.  I am reminded of my son’s musical journey. He was not especially gifted, but he wanted to learn the guitar.  Not being musicians ourselves, we took the recommendation of others and had him start on the piano as a “gateway” instrument. It didn’t come easy, but he persisted and now proudly plays keyboard in a band and bass guitar in another. Like so many other musicians,  he gave himself permission to suck, he found joy doing it, and now impresses me (and a growing audience) with every note. Over time, he has uncovered that he has a musical gift (at least compared to his parents). Had he not given himself permission to suck, he would never have realized that he has both ability and potential as a musician.  The challenge is in convincing ourselves that doing things we know we will fall short in is worth our time. Even more challenging is convincing our children and those with whom we work that they have permission to suck.  Earlier this month at work, I gave a member of our team an award for “sucking” and allowing all of us to learn from it. As long as we either suck less or suck in different ways, we all should acknowledge we have permission and at times a responsibility to suck. To the point of Megan’s book, there is an “up side of down.”

Megan relayed a story about a 15 year-old girl who had her eyes on getting into an elite college and had a 4.0+ grade point average. This young girl stated that she could not afford to take a class in which she might not get an “A”. If you think about that for a second, is there a stronger statement about the negative effect of our overly competitive society? Think about the learning opportunities our children are missing when they only study the things that they already know or are good at? How risk averse will this young lady be after she achieves her educational goals? Isn’t learning the point of education? If so, does an “A” mean we learned the most or does it merely mean we were minimally challenged? In college, I earned far more Bs and Cs than As and it had nothing to do with lack of effort or preparation. It had everything to do with studying things that I had not yet learned (whether I wanted to or not, but that is a different story). The students who received an “A” clearly had a better mastery of the subject matter than I did, but I will argue that there is a good chance the amount of learning that accompanied my “B” or “C” represented a more significant climb on the learning curve.

As parents, teachers, leaders, and more, we have the ability and responsibility to influence others. Our culture repeatedly incentivizes the easy path. Many times, we unknowingly encourage others to default to what comes easy. The young lady highlighted above is a prime example of how our educational system rewards people for pursuing what comes easy. At work, we often recognize top performers as those who demonstrate a continued proficiency in the execution of tasks they have been doing for years and not for how much they have grown over time, the new skills they have developed through their continued exploration of the new, or the new and unique value they have helped to create by caring enough to extend themselves. Many of us take jobs or pursue careers that we don’t necessarily enjoy, but because they are safe and secure. Easy is rarely fulfilling. Rather than choose a path because it is easy or safe, why not do our part to create an environment where it is easy to feel good about risking failure and to know that there is a safety net to catch us (instead of a judgmental glare or disciplinary action)?

  • When is the last time you gave yourself permission to suck?
  • Are you focused on getting an “A” in life or are you more interested in the journey up the learning curve?
  • Are you helping others understand that easy is not the objective?