This has always been a comforting line from my mom whenever I bemoaned the latest travails of my children. It is easy to laugh about – until someone dear to you steps off “the path.” Somewhere along the way we have colluded around “normal” behavior and progression for children. The assumption that all children are ready for school at 5 or 6, ready for high school at 14 and ready for college or something at 18 has so many exceptions to the rule – the rule doesn’t make sense to many of us – and yet it drives our feelings, our emotions and our relationships with those little adventurers – our kids.


It is important to note that large-scale systems – public schools, colleges, daycare centers – by their nature have to “manage to the herd.” Exception processing for hundreds of children is so difficult it gave rise to one of the most effective lobbying efforts of our lives – the Special Education Advocacy  – largely driven by parents whose children were not being served by the herd model.


We know all this – but still, when one of our family members steps off the “path” – we freak. My personal history includes several journeys off the path – a fact I conveniently overlooked when my kids wobbled. The story we tell ourselves is that we just want the best for our kids. In fact, the same inclination exists in other complex systems – like the workplace. “We want the best for our employees” rings across the corporate world. It is the clarion call of herd management. We do want the best – as long as they remain on the path.


Imagine a world where we expect people to “fail forward” – where you were expected to screw up so you could learn what to do (this is the inverse of the great grades, high test scores, advanced degrees, immaculate resume we are pressing our young to construct.)


Instead, we currently press our young to get it right first time, our new employees to be careful or perfect from day one. I wonder how much stronger, resilient and innovative we could become if we created conditions more conducive to learning and less about being careful.


Here’s an experiment: Listen to yourself talking to your children/new employees –

  1. What percentage of your instructions invite curiosity and experimentation?
  2. What percentage outlines limits, caution or warnings?
  3. What could you add/delete to shift to more learning and less “don’t make a mistake?”


Good luck. Let us know what you discover. If your organization is really good at this – we’d love to hear about it.