This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed on February 12, 2016.

By Joseph Holtgrieve


A few years ago I received a call from a concerned father of one of our first-year engineering students. His daughter was failing chemistry and, for the first time in her life, she wasn’t able to work her way out of the problem. He said, “My daughter can’t see a path that leads to success. As a father, if I can’t help her find a path, her only opportunity is to fail.”


Unfortunately, at places like engineering schools, where new students tend to be extremely bright and analytical, this problem is all too familiar. As adults, we know that surviving failure can be a valuable lesson in resilience and that the path to success isn’t always clear or straightforward. We also know that in such moments of intense uncertainty, we have an opportunity to discover previously untapped reservoirs of performance.


Many college freshmen, however, have not been inoculated to the experience of failure. They are often the brightest and the best in their high schools. Through talent or hard work, they have never failed at anything. Frequently, we see that a factor in their success -- and their fear of failure -- is that they have “snowplow” parents who have been diligent about clearing every obstacle from their path.


The snowplow strategy, as well-meaning as it is, takes a toll on the very children these parents are trying to help. Instead of learning resilience and to trust in their capacity to respond in the face of uncertainty, students are trained to fixate on outcomes like grades. They often confuse quality with quantity and maximize the volume of their activities. They are conditioned to avoid situations where the outcome is unpredictable. Add to that the ever-growing demands for their attention and the newly acquired independence of college life, and it isn’t difficult to see why a significant number of students who are used to mastering their lives feel overwhelmed -- even though they have the capacity to succeed in college.


How do we help today’s college students learn that uncertainty is just another word for opportunity? How can we teach resilience and show our students how to choose the best path for themselves when failure is a possible outcome? The answer certainly doesn’t lie in simply doing more of what worked in high school. If we do a good job of supporting these very intelligent young people at this critical juncture, we will not only help them past their immediate crises. We will also help them unlock capacity that they didn’t know existed and ways of tapping into it.


At Northwestern University, we have developed a curriculum that includes a special emphasis on teaching engineering students how to deal with stress and cope with their fear of failure through mindfulness and emotional intelligence. We do this in a number of different ways. For example, we work with colleagues across the campus to offer courses in areas like improvisation and swing dancing to teach students how to connect with themselves and others as they engage in and negotiate the challenges of collaborative problem solving.

 

We provide special counseling for undergraduates, like the distraught chemistry student I previously mentioned, designed to teach them how to be intentional with the questions they ask about their situation and how to live in the present moment nonjudgmentally instead of falling into self-criticism. One of the most troubling things I see revealed through students’ uncertain moments, is the self-brutalizing nature of the stories they tell themselves. When I ask students who their most critical voice is, their answer is almost always “myself.” Helping students understand there is no one correct path and that other people share their uncertainty enables them to let go of the judgment that fuels their fear of taking action.

 

For the full Northwestern News story, visit here.