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A fear of failure can prevent young people from reaching their potential.

Being a teenager is supposed to be a time to take risks. You make mistakes, learn, and then move forward, wiser and more capable. 

But for many teenagers today, the obsession with being perfect, whether in academic studies or in one’s personal life, is overwhelming. Social media has brought the impossible ideals of perfection into every aspect of life. And a fear of failure can prevent young people from reaching their potential.

Poor Outcomes

According to Psychologist Dr Bridget McPherson, research confirms there are links between perfectionism and poor outcomes such as lower self-esteem and psychological disorders. 

But it’s also associated with behaviours that interfere with learning, such as repetitive checking and correcting, overworking and reassurance seeking, or behaviours that are limiting, such as procrastination, resignation, and self-criticism.  

“These behaviours are often motivated by the belief that they will hide a person’s imperfections from others,” explains Bridget. “But over the longer term, these behaviours limit a student’s engagement in learning and often result in poorer academic outcomes.”

Inspired to Strive

So how can teachers help counteract this overwhelming quest for perfection in their students?

Today, many Australian schools are turning to a method developed by American psychologist Dr Carol Dweck more than 30 years ago. In her research, Dweck noticed attitudes about failure were central to a student’s academic success. Some students rebounded after a failure, while others seemed devastated by even the smallest setback. 

Dweck coined the term “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” to describe these different attitudes to learning and intelligence. If students believe they can improve and they understand that effort will lead to success, they are more likely put in extra time and effort into their studies. Which, of course, leads to greater success. 

This "growth mindset" concept is powerful in the classroom because it helps create an environment where students are inspired to strive, and not afraid to fail. “For students to become independent and successful adults, they must also know how to overcome disappointment and face adversity,” explains Dr Deborah Priest, Principal of Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School. “They need to be comfortable with failure as becoming one step closer to success.” 

Building Resilience

For many high achievers, however, getting “comfortable with failure” is easier said than done. 

Which is why, in 2017, Ivanhoe Girls’ was the scene of a remarkable experiment in teaching students the importance of failure as a model for learning. 

The School embarked on a groundbreaking “Failure Week” to help students counter their ideas of perfectionism. Students and teachers were encouraged to try new things, to laugh at themselves as they failed, and to learn from their mistakes. From stand-up comedy and portrait painting, to knitting and archery, students were encouraged to step out of their comfort zone, try new activities, accept their failures, and use them to learn and build resilience.

Failure Week promoted the importance of making mistakes in learning and growing, in an attempt to address the mental health impact of perfectionism in its students. 

According to Dr McPherson, embracing imperfection helps young people to develop flexibility, self-sufficiency, self-regulation, creativity and critical thinking. “Young people constructively exposed to challenges will build grit and resilience, which will help to make them more adaptive and successful in the future.”