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Teaching your Kids: Never Give Up, Even After Repeated Failure

The psychologist most responsible for the study of grit, Angela Duckworth, defines it as "perseverance and passion for long-term goals."1 It's a combination of zeal and persistence, even in the absence of encouraging feedback. So grit isn't just about trying hard. Anyone can try hard once. Grit means continuing to try hard after you've already failed. One of the best examples of that you'll ever come across is a man you probably already know and admire.

When he was seven years old, his family was forced out of their home and off their farm. Like other boys his age, he was expected to work to help support the family.

When he was nine, his mother died.

When he was twenty-two, the company he worked for went bankrupt, and he lost his job.

At twenty-three, he ran for the state legislature in a field of thirteen candidates. He came in eighth.

At twenty-four, he borrowed money to start a business with a friend. By the end of the year, the business failed. The local sheriff seized his possessions to pay off his debt. His partner soon died, penniless, and he assumed his partner's share of the debt as well. He spent the next several years of his life paying it off.

At twenty-five, he ran for the state legislature again. This time he won.

At twenty-six, he was engaged to be married. But his fiancée died before the wedding.

The next year he plunged into a depression and suffered a nervous breakdown.

At twenty-nine, he sought to become the speaker of the state legislature. He was defeated.

At thirty-four, he campaigned for a seat in the United States Congress. He lost.

At thirty-seven, he ran for Congress again. This time he won. He went to Washington and did a good job.

At thirty-nine, when his term ended, he was out of a job again. There was a policy of serving only one term in his party.

At forty, he tried to get a job as commissioner of the General Land Office. He was rejected.

At forty-five, he campaigned for the U.S. Senate. He lost by six votes.

At forty-seven, he was one of the contenders for the vice presidential nomination at his party's national convention. He lost.

At forty-nine, he ran for the U.S. Senate a second time. And for the second time, he lost.

Two years later, at the age of fifty-one, after a lifetime of failure, disappointment, and loss, and still relatively unknown outside his home state of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States.

Despite being elected to a second term, he served only four years in office before meeting his final defeat at the hands of an assassin in April 1865. But during those short four years, President Lincoln successfully led the country through its greatest internal crisis (the Civil War), preserved the Union, ended slavery and rededicated the nation to the ideals of equality, liberty, and democracy.

So the next time you think about quitting because you've already tried and failed, ask yourself this: How different would this country be if Abraham Lincoln had stopped trying after his first defeat... or his fifth... or his tenth?

Okay, share this story with your child, and then have a discussion. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. What's the last thing you failed at doing?

  2. How many times did you try before you gave up?

  3. What do you think would have happened if you'd tried three more times?

  4. What do you think this country would be like if Abraham Lincoln had given up after several failures?

  5. How do you know when it's time to really give up?

Okay, in the next lesson, we'll talk about the benefits of repeated practice and how long it takes to get good at something.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith