Life Isn't Linear
Editorial, High School, Middle School, Risk-Taking

Life Isn’t Linear

Life isn’t Linear. At least, it has not been for me or most of my role models.

At lunch the other day, I was speaking with a frustrated mother whose middle school was recruiting parents for a Career Day. She was on the recruitment committee. The parents attending Career Day all had linear career paths to their current jobs as investment bankers, wealth managers, lawyers, and doctors, but no entrepreneurs. Each parent had a clear path to career success, giving the message to kids that, if they know what they want to do by age 18, they can have a successful career too.

Despite her requests to find someone with a less clear-cut career path to inspire the students who do not want to be in finance and who do not operate in such a linear fashion, the committee was not interested in finding such a person.

That is a mistake.

Kids need proper role models. Ones in whom they can see themselves. But such extensive career planning and execution are simply not a part of who some students are. We teach students to pursue their passions and to be well-rounded, but then expect them to be singularly focused when it comes to their careers.

So where are the entrepreneurs? The problem solvers? The ones for whom the end goal is a little less obvious at the beginning? What about the Richard Bransons who start magazines at age 16 (and who have dyslexia) and who go on to found companies that are made up of more than 400 other companies?

There is a popular LinkedIn post titled, “These 150 People Are Ridiculously Successful and All Have the Same Career Path: None”. What about any of those people?

One of my biggest role models, my dad, did not have a clear career path. After college, he joined the Navy, went to business school and ended up in Human Resources at NBC. He was then offered positions in the company with the finance department (about which he knew nothing), and eventually he ended up as the general manager of a radio station. From there, he went on to start his own company flipping radio stations like someone would flip a house. If you were to tell someone that to be a radio executive you needed to start in the Navy, no one would believe you.

The point is: there is merit in the journey and it is okay not to have a linear career path.


Adam Grant, writer for The New York Times, recently published an article “How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off”. The gist of the article was that when really smart kids are told exactly how to complete a task, they do it really well. And when they show interest in a career and focus on it, they flourish. However, they do not change their respective fields. Instead, “They apply their extraordinary abilities by shining in their jobs without making waves” (2016). The kids who are given more freedom to figure out their own values and interests are much more likely to become the “adult geniuses who change the world” (2016). Parents of these children “encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success – but they also encouraged them to find ‘joy in work.'” These children were encouraged to pursue their interests, whatever they might be, and that led to successful, creative, often revolutionary careers.

Indeed, Grant continues, “Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience…. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians…” (2016).

Off to defend his thesis for his PhD in Mathematics, this young man rides a unicycle and juggles, just because he likes it!

Not knowing what you want to do for a career, being interested in several different options, going down different paths before you get to your dream job is worthwhile. The breadth of your experiences can enhance your ability to succeed at your job!

There are benefits to a linear path too, of course. My other role model, my mother, was a nurse. She went to college for nursing and graduate school to further her nursing acumen. Then she was the head of all the nurses at her hospital at a young age. She dominated her career by being so focused. But my dad also dominated his career by having a multitude of experiences. Both ways can work and schools should at least show children there is more than one, clear-cut path to a successful career. However, if your school does not, you can still discuss the many ways to be successful career-wise with your children. 


Grant, A. (2016). How to raise a creative child. Step one: Back off. The New York Times.

Karabell, Z. (2015). These 150 people are ridiculously successful and all have the same career path: None.


Is it Failure or is it Courage?

10 year-old-me was a feminist. (Current-age-me still is). I decided it was completely sexist that baseball was dominated by boys. Softball was not an acceptable alternative. So I asked my mom to sign me up for baseball that spring.

It was tough. I did not know any of the other players, but they all seemed to know each other. Plus, there was only one other girl on the team. So, the social scene was rough, but I wanted to prove that girls could do what boys do. I was not as good as all of the players, but I was better than some of them (including the other girl) and was put on third base. But as the season went on, I became more and more demoralized during practice and games because of the uncomfortable social situation. For instance, I never developed any friendships and some of the boys would ignore my raised hand for slapping after they scored.

One day I slid into third base for the first time ever. I was so proud to have made it without being thrown out. But my internal celebration was short lived as I felt cleats kicking into me from behind as another player tried to slide into third base too. He then yelled at me for not continuing on to home plate. I walked to the sidelines trying to figure out if I had misjudged where the ball was (but the third baseman had the ball when I got there…) and if I should have kept running.

By the end of the season, I did not want to go to games anymore. I stopped paying attention to what was going on and was put in the outfield. I specifically remember one instance when our team scored and I did not get up to cheer. My coach came over to me and said, “You’re on this team too.” I felt like such a failure. I failed at making friends. I failed at proving that baseball was for girls too. I failed at sportsmanship, a skill in which I had always prided myself. I failed to keep trying.

Since that day, I have considered my baseball career one of my biggest failures, which is a pretty good sign about the rest of my life. Until yesterday.

Yesterday as I continued to read The Gift of Failure, I came across this passage that so closely mirrored my experience, I was shocked:

Melissa Atkins Wardy… told me the story of her daughter’s first, failure-ridden day of baseball practice. “Amelia showed up for her first day of baseball last night and discovered she is one of two girls on a team of boys she doesn’t know. She was very intimidated, but she got on her helmet, chose a bat, and went into the batting cage. We didn’t realize “coach pitch” meant “pitching machine.” We thought it meant a parent lobbing balls across the plate for the kids. Still, Amelia summoned enough courage to get in the cage and take a pitch. She only took one pitch before the tears started, but sometimes that is what courage looks like. Somedays, courage looks a lot like failure, except it is the exact opposite.” (Lahey, 2015, 122-123).

Those few words changed my entire outlook on the whole season. I went to every practice and every game, not knowing anyone, not feeling welcome, not having played baseball on a real team ever before. That was courageous.

As Lahey explained, “Those are moments of courage and growth, and we need to teach our kids to be proud of them” (2015, 123).

Instead of understanding that season as a complete failure on my part, I re-framed my outlook and saw how brave I am and how much I had learned, even if I had not consciously realized it at the time. I learned that some kids are mean and that I probably do not want to be friends with them. I learned that it is much better to be inclusive of new people because I knew how it felt to be excluded. I learned that adults (i.e., my coach) do not always say the right things.

I am sure my parents thought those things and I honestly cannot remember whether or not they said them to me, but either way, I did not get the message at the time. (In defense of Mom and Dad, they certainly got the message across in other situations).

When you see your child struggling, help her correctly frame the situation. Figure out if she is truly failing at something she can do or if she is having a difficult time with something that is truly hard. Tell her how brave she is and why you think that way. Give her an example of a similar experience you had (or tell my experience as your own). By framing it as a positive experience, she will feel better, your relationship will strengthen, and she will be more likely to learn from her risk-taking in the future.


Lahey, J. (2015). The gift of failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed. HarperCollins: New York.

Difficult Topics, Risk-Taking

Failure – It’s Good for You

The real question is whether you dare to do the things that are necessary in order to be great.  Are you willing to be different, and are you willing to be wrong?  In order to have a chance at great results, you have to be open to being both” (Howard Marks, Chairman of Oaktree Capital, 2014)

According to Marks, if you are scared of failure, you will have average results at best. Marks was talking about investing, but the premise still stands: you have to be willing to be wrong in order succeed academically too. You have to be okay to make mistakes and laugh at yourself or you will never learn new things or grow. Marks continues “Show me a guy who’s afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy you can beat every time” (2014). Everyone looks silly when they are learning something new. A simple example – if babies were afraid to look silly trying to walk, we would all still be crawling. If you are afraid to look silly, it is unlikely you will become the best. We are not going for average results when we teach or raise children. We want them to outperform and to be the best. Failure is key to being the best.

Action item: to show your learner it is okay to look silly, be silly yourself! Wear a clown nose. Ask your child to teach you how to do something that they do well (for me, this would be video games). Do not be afraid to let them see you struggle – actually, it is better if you struggle and keep trying.

According to Marks, the fear of looking bad often ensures failure (2014). It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Therefore, if you are not willing to look bad, it will be difficult to succeed when presented with challenging, unusual tasks. The world is full of arduous and unique problems to solve. We are trying to raise problem solvers who can tackle those issues. Therefore, we need risk takers willing to make mistakes.

Failure develops resilience. “Resilience, the ability to overcome obstacles, that’s what matters most” (Suzanne McKechnie Klahr, Founder of Build, 2015).

Resilience is education’s hot new term and educators across the nation are trying to figure out just how to help their students develop it. It is the ability to bounce back after making mistakes, to persevere despite setbacks, to experience failure and not give up. Resilience is hard. It is hard to be a kid and to hear, “You are so brilliant/smart/great/wonderful” and then try something difficult and not be great at it immediately (or rather, to fail after the first try). It can be embarrassing and feel like a blow to a kid’s self-perception and feelings of worth (Covington, 1984). Therefore kids often do not want to talk about their failures. And if they do talk about it, they give the “I’m just not good at math” excuse. It creates what Carol Dweck calls a “Fixed Mindset,” where if you are not good at it already, you do not think you will ever be good at it, so you stop trying to learn. And there is the main problem. What is the point of going to school if you do not think you can learn and so you tune out the teachers while you are there?

So how do you learn to be resilient? You need to learn that it is actually okay to fail – in fact, that there is a benefit from failing. Failure is a part of learning and growing. That you failed is not really a big deal, but how you respond to that failure and what you learn from it is what actually matters.

So, to help teach your learners some resilience, here are some tips (though this list is nowhere near an exhaustive one):

  • Tell your learners that it is okay to fail and reminder them of that fact.
  • Point out and reflect on the benefits and uses of their strengths. Make sure they know that their strengths outweigh any shortcomings.
  • Set and communicate high expectations.
  • Focus on and reward effort over natural ability. 
  • Provide unconditional love and support, while maintaining clear and consistent rules and boundaries (a common – and good – general parenting tip).
  • When your learner does fail, make sure you say that it is okay, that is a good learning opportunity, and help them to practice ‘self-compassion‘. Then ask what she is going to do about it. Encourage taking action.
  • Help visualize the plan for moving forward. Help coach your learner through it. Help develop a clear way to reach the goal, but do not do it all for him. He needs to learn how to do it for himself.
  • If your learner is stuck, ask her to talk through the part that is getting her stuck. If she could get past that one part, what would she do next? (I specifically remember having trouble with Chemistry homework. By writing down exactly where I was having difficulty answering the question and saying what I would like to do in order to answer the question properly and why, I received partial credit).
  • After a failure, your learners need a positive experience, so help them achieve a small win. That way they will have the energy and positive outlook necessary to keep going.
  • Create a “risk-free”, safe environment, where mistakes are learning opportunities that are viewed in a positive light by authority figures. 

My favorite family’s reaction to a failure comes from Meet the Robinsons and illustrates this last point perfectly:

Failure is good for you. It helps you learn what you were doing wrong. And failing when the stakes are not that high helps you build the resilience you need to keep going when they are.

Additional References:

DeWitt, P. (2012). The benefits of failure. Education Week. Finding Common Ground. <>

DuHigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit. Random House Publishing.

O’Brien, K. (2014). Teaching students to embrace mistakes. Edutopia. <>

Zakrzewski, V (2013). How to help kids overcome fear of failure. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.