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Failure as the secret to success?

Let your kids gain confidence and self-direction by making their own mistakes.
Let your kids gain confidence and self-direction by making their own mistakes.
Steven Depolo (Flickr)

What engages people--and students, in particular--in learning and career success?

Countless studies, tutoring services, brain training programs, and specialized curricula offer parents a variation of a secret sauce to getting their children into Harvard, or the like, with the hope that the degree will lead to a not-so-modest salary and social acclaim.

These coveted formulas promising to mold children to carry so-called "success traits" cause parents to pressure their kids to seek internships and engage in resume-gleaming extracurricular activities, when in fact, such heavy parent-directed growth often results in counter-intuitively pushing children away not only from the parents, but also further from knowing themselves.

We live in a complex world filled with complex, hard and soft-wired humans. To claim any formulaic equation with precise variables directly correlated with future intellectual or monetary accumulation would be an imperfect, or false, construction. However, Bill George, author of the leadership book, True North, offers a compelling point to consider: there is a relationship between success and having a deeply personal and emotional life story to build success on.

These personal stories often involve a combination of sufferance, self-discovery, and a sense of social responsibility. One example Bill George uses in his book is Oprah Winfrey. Oprah was raised in poverty and was emotionally and physically abused as a child. She didn't discover the impact of her sufferance until her early adult years, which is when she decided to use her self-discovery as the primary motive for her actions.

Although Oprah's case was an extreme case of rising from the ashes, there was no question that her self-discovery ultimately gave her a deep sense of ownership and responsibility over her life and career.

So perhaps the secret to success is to expose our children to the world and allow them to make mistakes, learn, and build their own stories. Not every story will lead to altruism or Wall Street, but the best we can do to give our kids a shot at self-discovered, satisfying success is to simply point them in the right direction and give them the choice of walking there on their own--even if their paths may not be straight or easy.

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