Keith Magill: Happiness through hard work and failure
Listening to NPR a few days ago, I heard a discussion that had all the makings of a great high school or college commencement address.
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, a conservative Republican from Nebraska, was talking about his new book, “The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.”
The book, he told reporter and “Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep, was partly inspired by the lessons he and his wife Melissa want their three children to learn about virtue, perseverance and resilience. One of the best ways to learn those lessons, he said, is through hard work.
The couple have sent their children to work summer jobs ranches and farms, where some of the most valuable like skills they received came not from awards or trophies but from mistakes and failure.
“We want them to get dirt under their fingernails,” he said, “and we want them to have to get up at 4:30 a.m. when they don’t want to.”
How refreshing, I thought. Those kinds of life lessons are rarely afforded to children of parents who coddle, schools that reward mediocrity to protect students’ self esteem or little league coaches who award participation trophies instead of rewarding real achievement.
I’ve written about this stuff before, and so have a lot of others. This “cult of self esteem” is an essential component of what Garrison Keillor of “A Prairie Home Companion” fame calls the “Lake Wobegon effect.” His phrase refers to a fictional town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.” But what happens when that wonderful, above-average kid leaves Lake Wobegon for the real world?
Psychotherapist and mother Lori Gottlieb, in a 2011 essay for The Atlantic, offers one potential outcome. She wonders why so many people in their 20s and 30s have come to her seeking therapy. These young adults seemingly had everything going for them — great parents who were their “best friends,” an excellent education, good health, a cool job, supportive friends. Still, they felt “adrift,” had difficulty committing to a satisfying career and “generally felt a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose.” As one patient asked, why did she feel “less amazing” than her parents had always told her she was?
Sasse, former president of Lutheran-affiliated Midland University, offers a powerful antidote -- a mix of demanding work, a willingness to take reasonable risks and a commitment to learn from mistakes. Oh, there’s one more thing: You need to know from the start that you could get hurt -- physically, emotionally or both.
“We are doing a bad job of helping our kids understand that they have huge resiliency,” Sasse said. “Persevering and getting through hardship makes you tough, and at our house we celebrate stitches. As long as we didn’t do permanent damage to their spine that’s going to have lasting effect, we applaud and celebrate stitches at our house.”
I’ve seen that work in my own life. Often, life’s greatest rewards come not from some instant epiphany or lightning bolt of revelation but through repetition, practice, hard work and learning from mistakes. Nobody enjoys failure, but I respect the people I know who have overcome and grown stronger for it.
Resilience is a difficult character trait to develop, but it can make the difference between a happy, successful and fulfilling life and an unhappy, unsuccessful and unfulfilling one.
— Executive Editor Keith Magill can be reached at 857-2201 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @CourierEditor. You’ll find links to material Magill references in this column at houmatoday.com and dailycomet.com.