If you want  to be successful, you have to fail.

It’s a bit paradoxical, I know, but the biggest thing I learned from reading Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed was that if we don’t ever learn how to overcome hardship, we will never enjoy long-term success. Tough’s research covers many schools that focus on character building and how a study of one’s own character and improving certain character traits (such as persistence, grit, diligence, discipline, etc.) can lead us to greater success.

One of the most extensive parts of the book is about Elizabeth Spiegel’s junior high chess class. Spiegel takes young, poor, disadvantaged children from bad parts of town and trains them to be chess masters. Tough talks about the way Spiegel teaches her students to be good at chess, and it always involves the students learning from their failures. Whenever they lose a game of chess, they have to go back through every move with her and determine where it was that they lost the game and what they would have needed to change in order to win. This teaching style, which bled over to her students and became a part of their learning style, is ideal for analyzing how to be more successful in life. There’s even a story in the book about Tough interviewing Spiegel while the students were playing a game (not chess). One student had gotten mad because another student had taken his ball and then there was name calling, and he took his ball back and wouldn’t let anyone use it; they are middle schoolers. One of the students approached Spiegel and started to complain about how none of the students wanted to play with him anymore, so she asked him to look back over what had happened, just like she would have done with a chess game, and have him isolate the point where one of his choices led to his friends not wanting to play with him. He thought and realized that the moment when he had taken his ball back, his friends saw him as selfish, and the rest of the moves played out until all of his “chess pieces” had gone over to the other side of the board and joined another team. He walked through the incident, saw how his choice had determined one of many possible outcomes, and still stormed off upset, because he was an 8th-grader who wanted to see the other kids get in trouble. However, he did learn that, just like in chess, his actions had inevitable consequences, and that he could change certain consequences by changing his actions.

That’s just one piece of this book which is an excellent read for any current or future teacher or parent. If we really want our kids (whether that means our students or our offspring) to be successful, we don’t have to shield them from failure. We need to teach them how to manage it, and then let them fall down and get back up again on their own. If a child is equipped to manage traumatic events when they happen, they will probably grow up into the kind of adult who fails a class in college, recognizes what choices and circumstances led up to his failure, and then makes a plan for next time, learning from his mistakes. If a parent is willing to let their child go through these learning experiences, the child will grow up into a responsible adult even faster.

Overall, an excellent book that I would gladly recommend. The writing keeps you pushing through the book, and Tough does a great job of turning non-fiction into a page turner. He’s written another book about Geoffrey Canada’s success, Whatever It Takes. I’m excited to get to that one once I get my hands on a copy, and I’m sure it will be just as good as How Children Succeed.