This series of articles highlights the defining failures in my life to this point, as well as the invaluable lessons they taught me. I hope they inspire you - not to strive for failure, but to understand that striving for Significance means learning from failures, rather than avoiding them.
I remember sitting at the Harkness table in the classroom on the bottom floor of the academic building, looking out onto the quad on a sunny spring day. It was my first year at Exeter, and the other students in my 11th grade English class had left at the bell.
I stayed. So did our teacher, Mr. Rogers.
I can't remember whether the meeting was at his request or mine, but the topic of conversation was my perceived lack of ability to write good essays.
"I just don't think I'll ever be a good writer" I said, frustrated and demoralized.
I will never forget how Mr. Rogers responded – what he said, how he said it, and how it made me feel.
He said two things:
"You may not be a great writer now, but you ARE a great reader. Being an excellent reader is the first step in becoming an excellent writer."
Wow - Curveball. Wasn’t expecting that.
He went on:
"...and how hard have you REALLY tried?"
In a matter of 90 seconds, Mr. Rogers had turned my despair into curious optimism.
I'm not saying that he inspired me to devote my life to writing in this one interaction. In fact, until a few years ago, if you had asked me whether I would ever write in a public forum, I would probably have said no way.
What his comments DID do, however, was shift my mindset. By replacing a possible criticism with a genuine and specific piece of positive feedback, he gave me hope.
And then - oh so subtly - he kicked me in the ass.
He knew me well enough to see that I didn't work very hard in his class, and that I hadn't begun to tap into my potential.
I am not sure he knew the theory, per se, but he was using principles from the Theory of Self-determination during this short conversation. In one fell swoop, he gave me a sense of autonomy, he reinforced my competence, and he related to me in a very sincere and genuine way.
Am I a brilliant writer today? No.
Would I have become a competent writer without Mr Rogers' and many others' support and mentorship along the way? Very unlikely.
This is one of the benefits of a 10-student classroom. As the instructor, you get to know the students well.
Regardless of class size, however, I think we can all strive for what Angela Duckworth calls Wise parenting and teaching: the highly demanding and highly supportive approach. It really is the only way forward, in my opinion.
If we can move toward this approach, we can improve individual lives and the world around us. By helping young people raise their own expectations, and by helping them understand that it's ok - in fact, it's often best - not to reach those expectations immediately, we can create a more passionate, purposeful generation.
Many – like Mr. Rogers – have already embraced this approach, perhaps not even knowing the academic term. The goal, then, is to extend its reach into as many neighbourhoods and schools as possible.
I believe that this is truly a significant pursuit, because while the sun doesn't always shine in Mr Rogers' neighbourhood, it sure is a great place to grow.