Teaching Young Adults about Success and Failure

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Jenny Lehman, LCSW, is a psychotherapist with D’Arienzo Psychological Group, a Psychology Practice treating children, teenagers, and adults in Jacksonville, Florida.

As a psychotherapist, I have had the privilege of seeing many individuals at their most vulnerable time. These experiences have given me a unique opportunity to observe the current mental health status of certain age groups. Within the last decade, many mental health experts have sounded the alarm about the rising incidence of clinical depression and anxiety disorders among young adults in the U.S. (Newsweek,2018). While this focus has primarily been on children and teens, for the purpose of this article, I would like to shift this emphasis to young adults.

A trend, which I have noted within my own work with this population, is an extreme fear of failure, in addition to a persistent quest for validation from others. This ongoing observation sparked my curiosity. Why are these newly minted adults so terrified of mistakes? What messages about success have they absorbed? How are these beliefs affecting their overall sense of well-being?

Personal Worth vs Personal Performance

Multi ethnic group of five young adult friends taking a selfie in a forest during a hike, portrait

The answer, as I discovered quickly, was complicated. These young adults grew up in a time of tremendous, breakneck change. The 9/11 attacks, financial crisis, student loan debt, social media, and increasing globalization had tremendous influence on how Americans saw the world and their security within it (Scheffler et al., 2018). As a consequence, life felt less predictable and secure. Many parents became more concerned with things such as stable, well paid employment. Hence, the focus of parenting became intense emphasis on excelling academically. If a child was not academically inclined, perhaps the parental push moved towards sports, or the arts (ultimately to receive a scholarship). In many cases, this led to many kids, and consequently, young adults, to view themselves as producers and performers. Success was the ultimate goal, because only success can yield financial security and thus, true contentment with one’s life. The problem is what if you fail while performing? If your performance is poor, what are you worth as a person? This is the question many young adults struggle with presently. Somehow, we have confused personal worth with personal performance.

Success is obviously not a bad thing. Of course, any parent wants their own children to succeed and be able to function well on their own. Parents ultimately want their children to be happy and see excellence as a way to achieve that. The question is rather how can we decrease the fear of failure in order to empower young adults to learn and grow from their mistakes instead of fearing them.

My favorite answer to this question comes from child psychologist, Dr. Madeline Levine. At the beginning of her talks with parents about anxiety and depression in teenagers, she shows two graphs (Levine, 2008). On one graph, is a straight, upwardly trending line. The second graph shows a line that resembles a roller coaster which ultimately goes up. Dr. Levine asks the parents to raise their hands if their own road to success was a straight path without challenge or failure. Very few hands raise. Most adults can identify with rollercoaster. Very few can identify with the straight line (Levine, 2008).

The key to being successful is falling down multiple times and getting back up. As a culture, we have attempted to prevent our kids from failing for a few decades now. The issue with this approach is that it builds the fear and dread of failure in the mind of the young adult. Additionally, they do not experience the satisfaction that comes from facing and successfully overcoming an obstacle. When this same individual inevitably misses the mark in work or school, will she/he be able to recover?? The reality is that resilience and grit are cultivated through failing and surviving failure. In fact. Most successful people will share many, many stories of failure. The sooner we understand this fact, the better for ourselves, our children, and our society.

My recommendations for young adults struggling with this issue:

  • Find a mentor. Ask him or her to share their path to success. When was it the hardest? What was failure like? How did they recover from that failure?
  • Accept that employers and schools are not looking for perfection. They want accountability, flexibility, discipline, and a willingness to grow and learn.
  • Never be afraid to own your mistakes, but ask for direction on how to improve. And then follow it.
  • Create a small group of peers whom you can turn to for accurate insights on how you present yourself and what you can improve upon. Do the same for them. This takes the shame out of being imperfect, because no one is!!!

My recommendations for parents:

  • Be vulnerable with your kids around the issue of failure.
  • Share some personal stories about failure.
  • Focus on separating mistakes from who your child actually is as a young person.
  • Name positive qualities that you can see in your child, be specific!


Gander, K. Millennials are the most anxious generation, new research shows. Newsweek Magazine, May,2018:
Levine, M. (2012). Teach your children well. New York: Harper Perennial
Scheffler, R., Arnold, D., Qazi, H, Harney, J., Linde, L., Dimick, G., & Vora, N. (2018).
The Anxious Generation: Causes and Consequences of Anxiety Disorder among Young Americans.
Berkley Institute for the Future of Young Americans. Goldman School of Public policy.