Identity Development

Why learning to fail is as important as success

Dateline Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: What happens when we raise kids who are not afraid to make mistakes or fail? Can we let our kids fail when we ourselves fear the stakes are too high?

Learning to fall down:

My most vivid memory of the first time I got on skis was of my ski instructor teaching us how to fall. Over and over again, we fell into the snow. It seemed to go on forever. I was impatient to speed gracefully down the slopes, and what we were doing made no sense to me at all. But then we started down the gentle bunny hill. And we started falling for real. I still didn’t get it then, but I sure do now—I’d learned to fall down, so I wasn’t worried about it happening. I knew I could fall safely and without dire consequences. You could argue that practicing falling made me less likely to, but I wasn’t ever a terrific skier so I doubt that is true. Practicing falling did, however, make me looser and more confident on my skis. It allowed me to focus on having fun and learning some skills.

I was raised in a time when school and the school day belonged to students and teachers. Parents were less likely to intervene when something didn’t go just the way it was planned. I was also fortunate to have a wise mother who knew age-appropriate challenge and struggle to be essential to growth. And she was on-point when things didn’t go the way I hoped they would. She sat me down one day after a particularly upsetting test at school and told me, “Honey, you’ll learn far more from the things that don’t go well than you ever will from the things you sail through.” She made me feel I was fine, and she made the process of growth so much less daunting because of her approach. She’s been right over and over again.

Learning to fail in today’s world:
I try to remember this when I see my own teen heading into a rocky patch. I try to recall that day—and the many other times and situations in my life where I have practiced falling down or taken real tumbles. I try to keep in mind that having difficulty and learning from failing is actually good.  

But I also recognize I was raised when college applications did not typically include a 4.0 GPA, let alone a GPA above that number. Parental pressures are different now. And our kids have somehow become a social mirror of our own success in a way kids of generations past were not. These things contribute to today’s parents having a harder time allowing natural lessons to occur in the lives of their children.

snow drops.jpg

But just a thought about raising kids who are not afraid to fail: If you can do so, you get something wonderful as a result—a kid who knows to try another approach when a first, or second, or even third effort fails. A kid who isn’t afraid to stick his or her neck out and try new things. A kid who’ll decide in her senior year of high school that she DOES want to be in some plays—and then get herself cast. A kid who’ll decide that he wants to buy a canvas and some paints and see what happens. Maybe he’ll discover a love of art that will be a lifelong passion. Maybe he’ll consider it an interesting experiment and leave it aside for something else, but he won’t be afraid to try for fear of not succeeding.

Failure, success, grit:
The other day I heard the story of how micro-surgical procedures were developed for the eye. Suffice it to say, it took the pioneer responsible for this bold discovery decades to get it right. He failed over and over again during those years. But every time he did, he learned something new about what he was trying to do—simplify cataract surgery. And now what was once a lengthy procedure requiring a hospital admission takes 20 minutes in an outpatient surgical center. That is grit and determination. That is a great example of someone who did not fear failure. 

Goal Setting

Dateline, Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: Goal setting can feel like keeping a list of chores, but done right, it can help us feel successful, and assure we have time to relax.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.



When I was an undergraduate, I had this beautiful quote posted on the wall above my dorm room desk. And there is no doubt it inspired me—in fact It remains one of my favorite quotes to this day.

But where will boldness get you without a plan? Some potentially interesting places, to be sure…but maybe not the ones you’re intending!

I’ve just wrapped up my spring teaching semester—grades are in, my office is (somewhat) organized for fall, and I am looking forward to summer. How will I spend my time? I have patients to see and projects to tend to for the College and my family, but it would be pretty easy to drift along and get little else done. And yet, I have some bold plans…some specific goals for the months ahead.

This year for Christmas my daughter gave me the most beautiful planner I have ever seen. It is richly textured, the paper is fine, and it is laid out in precisely the way I like—week-by-week with a special column for notes. This planner has helped me indulge in my goal setting habit in style.

Once a week I sit down with my schedules—family, practice, college and personal. I begin by thinking about the main things I want to finish by the end of the week, and these things go on a list. Then I put obligations on my calendar—places where, if I didn’t show up people would notice. Next I build in time for myself—a lunch with a friend, a family event. After that, I take my week’s goals and think about what days might be best for what projects or parts of projects. On the calendar they go!

Setting goals is an important part of feeling successful and moving forward in life. For many of us, it is a difficult challenge. Some worry that it will be too time consuming, or make them feel trapped in obligation, or they fear they won’t accomplish what they hoped they would, and that would make them feel bad. For the last concern, I always tell people there is the next week, and the ability to break projects down into smaller component parts.

And a few reminders for us all

·         Setting goals helps us articulate what matters to us (and what matters to those to whom we are

·         Every time we check something off our lists, we get a little dopamine rush to the reward
       centers of our brains, and that feels good, and reinforces goal setting behavior!

·         Most important, setting goals down on paper helps us boldly stay on track—you wouldn’t drive
       somewhere new without Waze or Google Maps, think of your goal setting exercise as Waze for
       your life!

So this summer I have a number of personal and professional goals. I want to finish redoing the seat covers on our outdoor furniture. I am working on funding projects for Lewis and Clark’s Center for Entrepreneurship—that will be time consuming and a new area of endeavor, so I have blocked out a chunk of time each week to learn about institutional advancement. I have patients to see, some projects to oversee at my summer house, and the usual array of fun activities with friends and family. Armed with my lists, I know I’ve lots of free time, and a bunch of little dopamine rushes ahead!

I teach my students and patients to use a goal setting tool designed to help them break larger projects down to size and give them the big picture and the daily view. For many, this starts out as a chore, but for most it becomes unexpectedly freeing. I’d be glad to send you a copy of the worksheet I’ve designed for this purpose, just email me at if you are interested.




Making a successful college transition

Dateline, Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D: The college search is over. Now what? Some things to consider about the coming months as everyone waits for college admissions letters.

In the coming weeks yet another crop of high school students will be haunting their email inboxes for news from the colleges of their choice. Parents will be anxiously looking over their teen’s shoulders to see what’s ahead, while at the same time reviewing events of a lifetime. There are likely to be some sleepless nights for all parties. As both a college professor and a clinical psychologist I see this season from a number of angles. And this year, as the parent of a high school senior I have experienced it from a whole new perspective.

There are some things I know for sure: First, each year, literally millions of rising freshmen make it through the gauntlet of the college search and the application process to find themselves at a great school. Colleges are good at this—they know who is likely to find success in their classrooms and a fit in their co-curricular environment, and they use this knowledge to pick the students they will invite to attend. The vast majority of incoming freshmen are happy with their choice, and launch themselves into college with enthusiasm for the challenges that lie ahead.

Secondly, I know there are lots of opinions about what constitutes a “great” college. I am a firm believer that the best college doesn’t necessarily come with a brand name or ivy covered brick. What it comes with is fit, which depends entirely on your student. For a great meditation on this topic take a look at Malcom Gladwell’s chapter on choosing a college in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and The Art of Battling Giants. The gist of Gladwell’s thesis—most people thrive in a setting where they are challenged, but not so challenged that they feel less capable than their peers. Picking a college for its prestige is likely to backfire.

Finally, I know this is a transition for everyone—it isn’t just the rising freshman’s life that is changing. Parents, siblings, sweethearts and friends face transitions, as well.

Parents might find it helpful to keep some things in mind as their children prepare to leave the nest:

  •   As a loving and attentive parent you’ve worked hard to instill values and principles in your teen. Instead of spending the summer on a crash refresher course titled Everything that Matters, consider reinforcing your trust and conveying your belief in your rising freshman. She has spent years preparing for this transition, too.  Remind her how hard she’s worked.  Your faith in her will help her rise to this occasion. Your respect will help her turn to you when she needs advice and assistance.
  •  Remind your teen of the many times she’s confronted challenges and been able to figure them out, and how much she’s learned from things that haven’t gone exactly as she’s hoped. A person who recognizes that failure is a part of learning and growing is less fearful, more likely to try new things, more resilient, and much more likely to find success in life.
  • Recognize that your teen is at a point in life when his peers are central to his sense of self. Understand that this means he'll want to spend every waking moment with friends in the coming months—which means less time for you. This is not a statement about his love, it is a tribute to growing independence, and something to be celebrated.
  • Don’t get caught up in “lasts.” This tends to make things more an ending than a beginning for everyone. And honestly, it isn’t the last time you’ll visit favorite hiking trails, parks and restaurants. Your teen will be back! Try to think of special occasions as an opportunity to share a favorite place and one another’s company until you get to go there again.

At our house we are anticipating the coming year. There’s lots of talk about potential majors, international travel, dorm rooms and roommates, and whether or not down outerwear will be a necessity. And there’s also time to look back, to celebrate strengths and milestones and the resilience that comes with meeting challenges. This year, when I sit with the parents rather than the professors at my child’s college during Convocation I will be filled emotion, with longing and with hope for a bright, new future. I hope I’ll be as proud of myself as I will be of my teen-- and I will be, if only I can take my own advice!

Following your path and appreciating your journey

Dateline Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: The importance of insight, narrative review and developing a coherent sense of self.

In my professorial world, I frequently find myself talking with students who are trying to sort out their path in life. I have come to appreciate how easy it is for them to look at me and my faculty colleagues and figure we strode down a clear and well-marked hallway to get to where we sit today. Perhaps that is true for some, but for most of us (myself certainly included) it was more of a mountain trail, and the clarity of that journey is only truly visible when we look back. Looking back we find a clear and golden cord that leads from then to now, a cord woven by circumstance and design, and for most of us a good bit of chance and serendipity, too.

For many people—young and old alike--looking backward down the path of life is a kind of ritual of review. Milestones get revisited, mentors and friends celebrated, tragedies re-understood, family stories and fables and events remembered. Doing so reinforces how important it is to understand the self in this way. This backward review is sometimes a celebration, an opportunity to laugh with loved ones about events and strengthen connections that come from shared history. Sometimes it is an individual journey of reflection that highlights important truths and in doing so informs decisions and next steps. And sometimes it is a bittersweet struggle to make sense of a loss or manage a difficult and necessary life change. But review happens. And it makes people stronger in a bunch of ways.

For some, the backward glance down the path is threatening—a quick peek to make sure something isn’t sneaking up behind them in the dark. Often they experience their journey as a dash through a murky thicket of thorns and rough patches and potential danger. Why review it when the goal is simply to get through it as best you can? The past is ignored—appreciated only for having been survived.

Most people find themselves between these two extremes—pushing through challenges, appreciative of clearings when they come, as they allow for moments to catch their breath, review the journey a bit and prepare for the next uphill climb.

The question I am pondering today, as the New Year approaches, is whether there is merit in the ritual of review. Is there a useful purpose in finding your cord—the one woven from circumstance, design and serendipity? Is there value in pausing to intentionally sort through your narrative identity? Wise people have answered that question in many ways. And psychotherapeutic techniques across the decades have evolved to emphasize the importance of understanding the past and how it informs the present for each one of us.

One of the things I find most interesting about the narrative journey is the way in which our stories evolve over time. The historical truth doesn’t change, but our understanding of ourselves does, and as we learn more about our past, as we understand more about how it informs our present, and as our present lives evolve to reflect these new understandings so do our stories and truths and personal myths evolve. This is a gift of the psyche—one that allows us to appreciate anew the narrative of our lives, one that gives us opportunity to weave new strengths into the cord that leads us along the path into our present.

I wish for you an interesting path through the New Year, one that celebrates your life and builds on strength and hope and peace.

The Importance of a Growth Mindset

Dateline Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: We all strive to raise resilient children who understand the importance of hard work and have grit in the face of challenges that come their way. The growth mindset can promote resilience, grit and motivation.

Do you think accomplishments reflect innate talent, or hard work?
Do you bounce back from a failure and try to find a new approach to the problem?
Does your teen understand that it is effort, not native intellect that leads to success?

Creating Resilient Kids:
Researcher Carol Dweck has dialed in on some critically important information about how we learn to manage challenges in life. And according to Dweck and her colleagues, changing just one thing many of us say to our kids without thinking could make a huge difference in how they come to think about themselves and their skills, and whether they respond well to the inevitable setbacks that happen to us all. What is that thing? How we respond to them when they do something well and how we support them through setbacks.

Imagine for a moment your second grader bringing home a math worksheet with a big smiley face on it, mirrored exactly by the one she is wearing on her own, dear face. What is your first instinct when she jumps up and down, waving the paper happily in your direction? If you are like most of us, you’re likely to grab her in a celebratory hug and say something like, “Wow, sweetie, look how smart you are!” Well, according to Dweck, this natural instinct has the potential to backfire down the road.

Tame our instinct and encourage motivation in our children:
What should we do instead? The bear hug stays, of course! This is, after all, a cause for celebration. But instead of celebrating her smarts, Dweck suggests we turn our attention, instead, to her hard work and its role in her success. Imagine yourself saying, “Wow, sweetie. You worked so hard on this, you must be proud of yourself. I sure am proud of you!” According to Dweck, this shift in focus pays off in a big way now, and continues to do so down the road.

What difference does it make?
Dweck explains that praising intellect in our children risks causing them to develop a fixed mindset—the belief that skills and talents are fixed and finite. And when we think that way, we tend also to believe we have reached the outer edge of our finite ability when we have difficulty meeting the demands of a new challenge, or even if we run into problems in an area of life we’ve always found easy. If we believe this about ourselves, setbacks come to be seen as indication that we’ve reached our maximum ability.

It is easy to think that way, in fact, most of us grow up believing how “smart” we are about something is fixed from birth. Much like the color of our eyes or our height, this way of thinking suggests we are destined to have a finite helping in the brains department.  When a child is praised for her intellect she starts to believe things come easily to her because of that intellect. Praising her instead for her hard work may seem like a subtle difference, but it is an important change. Parents who make this subtle but important change help their children learn it is hard work (not luck or being extra good at something) that leads to success.

What’s the big deal—isn’t it good to know you are smart?
Dweck refers to this recognition as a growth mindset, and the research is pretty clear. Kids who have a growth mindset do respond better to challenges—both in and outside of school—than do their fixed mindset peers. And, interestingly, they are also more likely to seek those challenges out, because they are less afraid of hard work. They also seek out challenges because they know failing now and then is not proof that THEY are a failure, but an inevitable part of learning and trying new things. And when they fail at something they are less likely to give up and more likely to regroup and try a new approach, especially when parents respond with acknowledgement of how hard they are working, and encouragement about trying again. In other words, kids with growth mindsets are more comfortable meeting challenges, more resilient in the face of setbacks and well aware it is hard work that gets them where they want to go.

You mentioned this pays off down the road?
Dewck and her colleagues have looked at the many ways a growth mindset plays itself out across the lifespan. People with a growth mindset make better employees, because they are open to feedback about their progress. They understand it is their hard work that gets the job done—and they work hard as a result. They also become better bosses and coworkers, because they don’t fall for the faulty notion that people have a fixed amount of skill. And if you don’t see other peoples’ skills as fixed, you welcome their capacity to learn and recognize the learning curve is a natural and inevitable part of trying new things.

This theory of the fixed and growth mindset is one important way to think about helping people reach their potential and become resilient to the bumps along the road. If you would like a place to talk about helping yourself or your teen better manage the rocky roads that come along in everyone’s life, please call me at 503-490-5793.

If you want to learn more about this important topic:

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.