Delaying failure only delays success

Glenn Reynolds (who with his wife Dr Helen has a great great podcast on the same subject) links Megan McArdle's discussion of psychologist Robert Epstein's thoughts on extended adolescence.

"It occurred to me that young people must be capable of functioning as competent adults, or the human race quite probably would not exist," says Dr. Epstein.

Concludes Megan McArdle,

...perhaps Epstein is right, and we're only extending the foolish phase well into the twenties.
I think he is right, and I think a lot of genuine cruelty is perpetrated under the guise of "protecting the children."

Anyone who is starting out in life is more likely to make mistakes than someone who has already made mistakes and learned from them. But if only adults are allowed to make mistakes, then only adults can learn from mistakes. Adulthood is generally defined as the age of accountability. All of a sudden, a former child (who has been unaccountable for most or all of his life) ceases to be a child, and is suddenly allowed to take risks and be held accountable.

I think he is more likely to fail (because of inexperience) than he would had he been allowed to take risks earlier. Logically, inexperience is the leading cause of failure.

But does that mean that a teenager is any more likely to fail at what he undertakes than he would be if he attempted the same thing a few years later?

I don't see why.

What Epstein says may seem counterintuitive to a lot of people, but if we assume (and common sense suggests we must) that failure is more likely in the case of a beginner, wouldn't it best serve people to allow them to fail at a younger age, so that they can develop what is called experience?

As a practical matter, I think older people in positions of authority (such as employers, lenders, and creditors) are more likely to take age into account when dealing with someone, and thus they are more likely to forgive a teenager who makes a mistake than an "adult" who is presumed to be experienced whether he is or not. Thus, I think letting teenagers take adult risks may be not only a better way to raise them, but kinder in the long run.

As to schools (especially public schools), from what I can see, they not only foster the continued infantilization of adolescents, but they increasingly do not allow failure. Thus, they reach legal "adulthood" in a clueless, ill-prepared state.

Permitting failure is a kindness. Preventing failure is cruelty.

One of McArdle's comments pointed to a marvelous essay by Paul Graham titled "Why Nerds are Unpopular." It's long, but it rang true on so many levels that it seemed BillWhittlean. School is mostly a form of torture like a mini Lord-of-the-Flies prison. Something to be endured consisting mainly not of education, but a struggle for popularity. The more time the clueless and monstrous kids devote to being popular, the less equipped they'll be for life. (If I had a nerdy kid and he was forced into an environment like that, I'd tell him that the eventual revenge would take the form of watching his former tormentors fail in life while he succeeds.)

BTW, I hadn't given this subject much thought before I'd listened to the Glenn and Helen podcast interview with Dr. Epstein, which I highly recommend.

How I managed to write this post without discussing my own adolescence, I don't know. I guess I used similar tactics of evasion during that period, but who the hell today cares about the awful things I did during my adolescence?

Besides, success at adolescence in high school is not success! It can lead to serious, sometimes lifelong mistakes.

(What I did to get through it is nothing to be proud of.)

AFTERTHOUGHT: One of my peet peeves is that society (and the government) increasingly treats adults like children. "A national kindergarten!" I've repeatedly complained. Might it be that delaying adulthood is a contributory factor? That what we call "teen culture" might persist in a very unhealthy way?

The implications are disturbing.

UPDATE: Dr. Epstein's book has its own website -- The Case Against Adolesence. Check it out!

UPDATE (04/17/07): In a post (linked by Glenn Reynolds) about the horrendous shooting at Virginia Tech, Rand Simberg notes another typical attempt to call young adults "children":

Now they're going on about "the children, won't someone think of the children"? Someone on Cavuto is demanding to know what they're doing for "the kids." Are they being kept warm, are they being fed, are they getting the grief counseling they need?

These "kids" are college students. Almost all of them are of the age of majority. They're the same age as the "kids" who are off fighting for us overseas, who are seeing things just as horrific, or more so, every day. Yes, one doesn't go off to an idyllic campus in the western Virginia mountains with the expectation that they'll have to deal with something like this, but they're not kids. In every society up until this one, they would have been considered adults, and many of them would have already been married (or not) and raising families. The notion that we should treat them like grade schoolers, for whom we are responsible for feeding, and heating them, is ludicrous. Yes, they're upset, but I'm pretty sure that they're still capable of feeding themselves, and finding a blanket, if shooting people somehow caused the heating systems on campus to break down. If I were one of them, I'd be insulted and appalled at this kind of stupid, stupid commentary.

The infantilization and extended adolescence of our society continues apace.

I couldn't agree more.

posted by Eric on 04.14.07 at 11:38 AM


I very much appreciate your supportive comments. For more information, you might want to check out my new book on this topic, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. From cover to cover, it celebrates human potential and the uniqueness of the individual. See

Dr. Robert Epstein   ·  April 15, 2007 3:37 AM

Thank you for coming, and for the comment!

Eric Scheie   ·  April 15, 2007 11:26 AM

Eric, you wore Dr. Epstein's site out. :)

Seriously, we've deliberately disconnected from our youth. We either revile or romanticize them. We won't accept them as people who are not yet ready for full adult responsibilities, but who are capable of being responsible to some measure.

I also agree that our self-appointed elites have infantilized us. All in the name of controlling us and retaining the power they have grown oh so fond us. Defend yourself against an attacker, and no matter what the evidence says, you are treated as if you had been convicted, condemned to death, and now taking the last walk to the stoning grounds. That the police will treat you as guilty of some horrendous crime upon the mere suggestion you've done something that might be questionable behavior has become a beautiful example of, "axiomatic". Our leadership acts as if they were an occupying force in a land rife with rebellions and insurrections.

And we let them.

Aint it about time we cried malarky and put the smackdown on the elitists?

Alan Kellogg   ·  April 15, 2007 3:47 PM

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