Friday, July 18, 2008

Dealing With Failure

College is a crucial point in a person's life. The decisions they make, such as the career they choose, will have a large impact on their happiness in life. Students are quite concerned with developing into happy individuals. As well they should, everyone is susceptible to sadness and depression, and students well know that many adults (should I say most?) are unhappy with their jobs and often their life.

Students are concerned with their happiness, and I have learned that they thoroughly enjoy class discussions about what makes people happy. I often discuss lessons from the excellent book, The How of Happiness. The major lesson from this book is that 50% of peoples' happiness is determined by their genes, 10% by their circumstances (including their job and income), and 40% by their general outlook on life. This is good news! Though not a majority, a significant portion of our happiness is theirs to control!

I believe so much in this book that last year I purchased multiple copies and gave it for free to certain students I was particularly fond of.

In hopes that I can help students evolve into happy adults, I have one particular lesson I discuss every semester, a lesson about dealing with failure.

Believe me, I know failure, and I like to share my greatest failure with my class. Recently I was given the opportunity to write a textbook on agricultural marketing and price analysis. Overall it is an excellent book, though I am biased, and is a considerable improvement over existing textbooks. Yet in writing the book I made two huge mistakes (1) I calculated an international market equilibrium incorrectly and (2) incorrectly described the three stages of production for a firm. This was a HUGE embarrasment for me. This book was supposed to me one of my greatest achievements, but however small those two errors may seem in the overall writing of the book, because of those two errors this textbook instead feels like my greatest failure.

To avoid lasting sadness, to avoid depression, psychology has clearly shown how one must deal with such failures (I have read tons of books on the psychology of happiness and depression). Instead of viewing this failure as an indication that "I" am a failure, I must instead understand that the "textbook" was a failure - a failure that does not have to be repeated. This is the difference between self-esteem and self-efficacy. Self-esteem refers to our overall view of ourselves; self-efficacy refers to our perceived ability to perform certain tasks.

It is important to acknowledge failures when they occur, so that we may improve. It is more important not to let failures alter our overall appraisal of ourselves. While I did not perform as well as I hoped in writing the textbook, I am still a successful researcher and teacher overall. As long as I can recognize this, happiness is always within reach.

It is often said that to teach a concept we must first let the student fail. Let the student try to calculate a market equilibrium, and when they fail, show them why they failed, and keep at it until they succeed. If we are going to make them fail, we should teach them to deal with failure!

Students will fail in tasks, in and outside the classroom. It is more important that students learn to be happy than to learn economics. Let us commit to helping students how to deal with periodic failures so that they maintain a favorable appraisal of themselves. I have found the best way to do this is to share your own failures, and how that failure should be acknowledged, it doesn't mean that you are a failure.

And if you have no failures of your own to share, feel free to use my failures as an example!

Wishing the Reader Happiness,