Adam Price Ph.D.

The Unmotivated Teen

Failure Is Unacceptable

But what is wrong with plain old sucking?

Posted May 20, 2017

The other day a few twenty somethings taught me a Frisbee game called “Flutter guts.” The Frisbee is flipped in the air so it spins vertically, and has to be caught with one hand. I lost handsomely, but walked away feeling victorious because I managed to score one point! It actually felt fun to try something new, even if I sucked.                             

Editor Karen Rinaldi feels similarly.  Her recent New York Times OP Ed , (It’s Great to Suck) at Something  eloquently extols the virtues of being a passionate, but mediocre surfer. Two of the virtues she lists are patience and humility..

 It is the rare adult who leaves their comfort zone to pick up a new hobby, let alone starts a new career, so we have forgotten what it is like to feel inept, unskilled, or awkward. Yet kids feel this way all the time. We call it learning, and as parents do everything we can to expose our children to new experiences and to teach them new skills. However, by the time they get to high school, it is no longer ok for kids to “suck.” In order to get into college we expect their GPA to reflect mastery in every subject, and their performance on the soccer pitch or in the orchestra to be stellar.  Parents are worried to death that if their offspring do not achieve excellence now, they will fail at life. That is because being perfect has become the new average. Over and over I hear parents describe a C in Spanish as if it were an F.

Parents are not just manufacturing this stress: kids are actually expected to do better than they were 15 years ago. According to The Nation’s Report card published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) the average GPA increased from 2.68 in 1990 to 3.0 in 2009. High School graduates in 2009 also took three more credits (the equivalent of 420 additional class room hours) than their counterparts did in 1990.

However, in those ten years kids did not become smarter and the day didn’t get any longer.   But getting into college did not really get any harder. Although factors such as the common application and foreign admissions have pushed college applications up (and therefore admissions rates down), a 2010 report by the National School Board Association’s Center for Public Education, indicates that for most students college acceptance rates remained the same between 1992 and 2004. Your son may not get into his first choice college, nor the one you think will magically make him “set for life”, but he will get in.

Nonetheless every day I see more and more boys who buckle under this pressure.  Rather than strive for unattainable perfection, they opt out of the completion all together. In doing so they fail to learn important life skills that only sucking at something can teach. Rinaldi writes that the point of sucking “the patience and perseverance it requires to get back on the (surf) board.” English teacher Bruce Pirie calls this ‘uncertainty tolerance,’ or the ability to tolerate feeling unsure of yourself, or even stupid, while you figure something out. Doubt is central to learning.

Of course, there is a difference between an adult trying a new hobby and a high school student applying to college. However, this analogy will help you keep track of two important things: how much pressure your son is under, even if he does not seem to care,  and that is he is still growing, mentally as well as physically. You may think that he will never be able to get himself out of bed in the morning, or get all of his homework done on time, but that is not true; he just sucks at those things right now. But he isn’t failing. In fact he is going to get lots and lots of practice in the years ahead to get to class on time, and to turn in his papers. So should you let him suck. No, he just does. But don’t expect him to be perfect, or even all grown up. When you realize he is not failing, then you will realize making mistakes, not getting it right the first or second, or even third time, is part of the bargain; it’s part of learning, and of growing up. This awareness will make it easier for you to assist him in the process.

So go out there, try something new, and suck. You might get good at it. At the very least, you will gain some empathy for what your son is going through.  

Here is a link to Karen Rinaldi’s op-ed:

Here is a link to a video of flutter guts:

And here is a link to an interesting article that was the source of the statistics I quoted: