best practices

Kobayashi Maru

June 13, 2019

“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

—Winston Churchill

We live in a super competitive world. And we push kids on to that race track at an early age. School has become, for many, less about learning and more about winning. We win school when we get an A—and we really win with straight A’s. A 4.0 cum isn’t even good enough. We expect kids to take extra AP courses and get that 5.0, a perfect SAT or ACT score. High grades—best colleges—highest paying jobs—happy life. We implant this idea that life can be undefeated. Yet, we know it’s a) not true and b) unnecessarily stressful. Although failure is a dirty word, maybe giving kids experience with something that will confront them with failure in their lives will help them be better prepared for it.

Trekkers will understand what I’m getting at immediately by the title of this piece. For the uninitiated, the Kobayashi Maru is a test of character given at Star Fleet Academy to measure how cadets handle absolute failure. (Of course, young James T. Kirk famously reprogrammed the simulation because he didn’t “like to lose,” although the older Kirk realized the value of the test when he was facing his own inevitable loss.)

I was thinking about how to apply this concept of overcoming failure to a middle school audience when I found Jia Jiang and his video, A lot of the humorous adventures he puts himself through to get over his fear of rejection would not be appropriate for 12 year-olds. But I introduced this to students and we brainstormed some variations to come up with what we called it the Victory or How to Achieve Failure Project.

We determined that the goals of this exercise were:

  1. To conquer the fear of failure
  2. To interact positively with others
  3. To not be attached to success
  4. To enjoy ourselves

Then we made a set of ground rules:

  1. Never do anything that makes you feel unsafe.
  2. Always work with a parent or teacher on each task.
  3. Always be respectful in every situation.
  4. Always be prepared to try several times before achieving failure.

Finally, we came up with a list of dozens of activities that we were pretty sure we would fail at spectacularly. We made sure we documented our beautiful defeats with videos or photos or journaling. The results were amazing, fun, and stretched the borders of everyone’s comfort zone. You can create your own lists. Here are a few we tried—and failed at—in our class:

  • Get a “Burger Refill” at a fast food restaurant
  • Draw a self-portrait in chalk on the sidewalk
  • Dance in public for at least two minutes
  • Get a celebrity to write you a fan letter
  • Make a pizza at a pizza place
  • Throw a “Not My Birthday” Party for yourself
  • Get a tour of the back of a grocery store Run for mayor of your block or apartment
  • Sing a song over an intercom in a public place
  • Have your parents pay you a salary

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