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Vulnerability and Courage

I have written and reflected a fair amount on the importance –for all of us, students and staff-of being able to take risks in our learning, as we can learn a lot from our mistakes and failures. What I am recognizing more and more is that while the concept of learning from mistakes is a very good one, there is a significant tension when trying to create an environment in which to encourage risk taking while also being a school with very high achieving students, as well as staff and parents whose ultimate goal at the end of the experience is to afford our students acceptance to a post-secondary educational institution of their choice. These acceptances always require stringent standards, and thus many ask “How can students and staff be guided to take risks such that there will be mistakes and stumbles, when they are concerned about the ultimate ‘results’ of their efforts and work?”

As I wrote at the beginning of this year, a key condition for risk taking is the assurance of a community that will allow our girls to take chances in their learning, to be comfortable receiving constructive feedback for growth, and to learn that learning is not simply about an end result but truly about the path along the way.

Over the break, I read a very insightful book that supports the importance of ensuring an environment that is conducive to developing the courage to take risks and to err in learning and life. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brené Brown is an excellent read and I strongly recommend it. The title of Brown’s book is taken from a well-known Theodore Roosevelt speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic” that contains a passage about the figurative ‘man in the arena’ “who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Brown argues that we live in a world of scarcity where things are ‘never enough’ including our expectations of ourselves. Brown attributes this sense to the existence of three issues that she feels contribute to individuals feeling like things are never good enough:

  • Shame: found in environments where self-worth is tied to achievement, productivity, or compliance. It is also found where perfectionism is an issue, and where fear of ridicule and belittling exists.
  • Comparison: Brown indicates that while healthy competition is beneficial,  comparison becomes a problem when creativity has been suffocated because of constant overt comparing and ranking; where individuals are held to one narrow standard rather than being acknowledged for unique gifts and contributions
  • Disengagement: can be found where people are afraid to take risks or try new things and where people are struggling to be seen and heard.

Brown also impresses upon the reader that the willingness and courage to be vulnerable are essential to taking risks and achieving growth. One particular aspect that can affect one’s ability to be vulnerable is the desire for perfection and I appreciated Brown’s insights on what perfectionism isn’t. She indicates that

  • Perfectionism is not the same as striving for excellence: in fact, it is often the block to allowing us to be seen and appreciated for who we are
  • Perfectionism is not self-improvement but rather about trying to earn approval. As Brown says, healthy striving is self-focused: how can I improve?
  • Perfectionism is not the key to success. As Brown explains, “research shows that perfectionism hampers achievement…is correlated with depression, anxiety, addition and life-paralysis or missed opportunities…The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations and being criticized keeps us outside the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds.”

In a school where we all set high expectations for ourselves, it is vital to remember that, as Brown says, “Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage.” It is our responsibility to continue to work to ensure an environment that fosters this.


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