The word ‘brave’ is typically attributed to larger-than-life heroics. Bravery is big, and bravery is bold. But bravery can also be small and private, easy to overlook or take for granted. This subtle bravery is just as important to name and to celebrate. It is the bravery of true effort, of putting ourselves out there with the knowledge that we might fail.
For many students, every day is an exercise in bravery. A student who finds it difficult to socialize with other students is brave when they approach a table in the cafeteria and ask if they can join. A student who is confused in class is brave when they raise their hand to ask a clarifying question, outing themselves for not understanding the content. And a student who doubts their abilities is brave when they commit to putting forth their best effort, not knowing if it will be good enough.
Giving something our best effort is one of the most vulnerable things we can do. When we don’t try our hardest, our excuses are baked in from the start. We can explain away our failures: they may reflect our efforts, but they don’t reflect our capabilities. And this is safer than trying, because when we try, when we really lay it all on the line, we run the risk of failure. REAL failure, not ‘I could have tried harder’ failure, but ‘I did my best and it wasn’t good enough failure’. And this type of failure is an essential part of developing the resilience and flexibility that supports students’ independent long-term success.
I’m privileged to see students do brave things every week.
Sometimes that bravery comes in the form of a student admitting that they don’t understand something. This seems mundane and unremarkable, but how often do we admit this ourselves? How often do we ask for help in making sense of things we’re told that we should know? Asking for help and seeking guidance is not only brave, it is wise, and too often we lose this wisdom as we get older and are made to believe that we should know the answers, even when we don’t understand the questions.
Other students are brave when they show up every week and give it their all as they prepare for an admissions test like the SAT or ACT. They hear about their friends’ high scores, they see the percentiles and the average scores at colleges to which they hope to apply, they are reminded every time they practice that they are still far from their goals. But they keep showing up, and they keep putting in their best effort, making progress one step at a time, like a determined hiker with their heart set on the summit. This, too, is brave, not just because the student is working hard, but because they could give it their all and still come up short.
So how do we nurture this bravery? How do we raise children to take the risk of being their best selves?
First, we praise the effort more than the outcome, and we attribute success to the work the student has put in rather than any natural attribute that has made them predisposed to ‘success’. Talent should be celebrated, but as the saying goes, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”. Whether a student achieves their goal or comes up short, the important question is ‘did you do your best?’. Did the student embrace the bravery of risking true failure by giving it their all?
Second, we continue to raise our expectations. We are all prone to plateauing. At our jobs, in our exercise routines, even in our relationships, we reach a point when we know what it takes to get by; we understand what ‘good enough’ looks like and we become comfortable providing it. When a student is putting in their best effort and achieves a new tier of personal success, we should celebrate the effort that got them there, but we should also work with the student to determine what comes next. The beauty and tragedy of goals is that our reward for each goal we achieve is the opportunity to set a new, more ambitious goal that requires even more bravery to achieve. When we do this, bravery becomes a habit rather than an exception, a muscle that grows stronger the more we use it.
Finally, we forgive ourselves and others when we fail. If we have experienced true, courageous failure in which we have given our best effort and still come up short, we don’t make excuses, but we also don’t blame ourselves. When we exercise the bravery of our best effort on a regular basis, some failure is inevitable, and the braver we are the more often we will fail, and failure is scary. But as with many scary things, failure becomes less frightening the more we experience it, and as our fear of failure is diminished, our capacity for bravery grows.
Raising kids to be brave also requires courageous parenting. You may see a failure coming a mile away, yet you resolutely believe in your child, encouraging them to give their best effort, to be brave, even when you know that their efforts will not be enough for them to succeed, at least not yet. But when students learn to give it their all, to fail again and again only to get up stronger and more determined, they develop the routine bravery that they will need to be the architects of their own long-term success.