Famously Failing: Help Your Teen Find Success in Setbacks
Updated: Aug 17
Oprah was fired from one of her first television anchor jobs. Albert Einstein was labeled “mentally slow” in school. Lady Gaga was fired from her record label after three months, and Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Stories of famous failures can be a source of inspiration for teens as they are navigating challenging situations.
But if we want to move beyond inspiration, we have to dig a little deeper to help our teens learn how to turn failure around–the practical steps that turn a loss into a win. Here, we outline five questions parents can ask to guide teens through a perceived failure and find success on the other side.
How are you feeling? The more we care about something, the worse we’re likely to feel when our attempts to succeed fall flat. It’s important for teens to know their feelings are valid, and that it’s ok to feel sad, embarrassed, sorry for themselves, or however they feel after a setback. As parents, we can support our kids’ whole spectrum of emotions and help them work through their emotions instead of getting stuck feeling down. Talking about an upset - when they’re ready - can help teens process disappointment and reframe it as a growth opportunity. Mindfulness, movement, and journaling also help teens feel their feelings and put things in perspective.
What’s your “why”? Because kids are immersed in a competitive culture, it’s easy for them to forget that it’s not all about winning top scores or trophies. They can also be motivated by learning and mastering new skills, teamwork, self-awareness, self-expression, curiosity, friendship, and fun. Ask questions like, “What do you love about being on the softball team even when you lose a game? What’s the most fun thing about robotics/coding/orchestra? What skill that you’ve learned makes you proud? What else are you excited to experience?” Knowing their “why” helps teens redefine success to include all the benefits, so even when they lose, they win.
Is it time to quit? We all know the old expression: Quitters never win, and winners never quit. But sometimes, quitting is the right choice. For all the famous folks who persisted their way to achievement, there’s another example of someone who found success after quitting. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg both dropped out of Harvard. Vera Wang quit earlier careers as a figure skater and editor before becoming a fashion designer. As teens explore, experiment, and discover their skills and passions, they’re likely to encounter a few activities that aren’t aligned with their emerging identity or goals. Parents can support them when they decide it’s the right time to let go. It’s not failure to quit something if it’s just not a good fit.
What’s the lesson in this? Rhianna, another icon who overcame early setbacks, inked a reverse-reminder on her right shoulder, so she can read it when she looks in the mirror. The tattoo reads, “Never a failure, always a lesson.” One of the most powerful perspectives we can share with our kids is that failure is feedback. Every experience is valuable because it helps us learn, and we often learn more from mistakes than we do from triumphs. We can help our teens identify and be proud of what they have learned. They’re learning who they are, what matters most to them, and what their version of success looks like.
What’s next, and how can I support you? After taking some time to integrate their emotions and lessons from loss, teens have a choice to make: how do they want to move forward? Teens are just beginning to take on more responsibility and commitments, so dealing with disappointment can be a defining moment. The most important message parents can send at this stage is, “I have faith in you and your choices, and I’m here to support you.” Instead of trying to fix their problems or push them to do what we think is best, we can take a deep breath, step back, and let them lead the way.
Famous failures teach us a powerful lesson: little losses often add up to big wins. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “(People) succeed when they realize that their failures are preparation for their victories.” With the right kind of guidance and support, teens can learn how to find resilience in the face of failure and turn their setbacks into long-term success.
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