Gift of Failure

A Tale of Two Towels

All these things, and a thousand like them, came to pass in and close upon the dear old year two thousand and nineteen.


See these towels?

These towels left our house in August of 2018, when my son and his girlfriend went out to enjoy a romantic evening by the firepit. The stone benches were wet, so my son took the towels to keep their butts dry.

The next morning, I noticed the towels were still outside, so I asked my son to bring them in and wash them. I mentioned for the record that no matter how long he delayed, no matter how effectively he hemmed and hawed, I would not touch those towels.

And lo, A Tale of Two Towels began.

The Towels saw summer wind down and a beautiful Vermont fall come and go. I could not see them for much of the winter, but they were still there, hidden but never forgotten, under piles of drifting snow.

Come April, when the last of the snow finally melted into mud season, the towels reappeared.

In the first week of May, my son invited a bunch of his friends home from college for dinner. Figuring they might use the firepit, he moved the towels (and about a pound of wet leaves and sticks) to the sill on the back porch, within twenty feet of the washing machine.

There was much rejoicing, and later, much passive-aggressive commentary .


Yesterday, as we were preparing to host some medical students in our home, this writer’s husband freaked out and caved. Embarrassed by their smelly, wet nastiness, he gathered up the towels (along with the aforementioned pound of leaves and sticks) and placed them in the washing machine.

I discovered his tactical error later that night and determined not to let this one defeat mar twenty-plus years of marriage, started the machine’s self-cleaning cycle with a double dose of Affresh.


For much of today, I thought our Tale was over. We fought the good fight for almost a year, but in the end, our son’s formidable delay tactics and my husband’s aversion to mildew were our undoing.

But this evening, I discovered my valiant and determined husband returned the towels, unfolded but sweet-smelling, to their place on the sill.

And with that, our Tale continues, afresh.


Thus did the year two thousand and nineteen conduct their Greatnesses, and myriads of small creatures—the creatures of this chronicle among the rest—along the roads that lay before them.

Sex, Drugs, and Dripping Woe

Lucie Manette expresses her disdain for winter's callous indifference to nap location #7 (of 24). 

Lucie Manette expresses her disdain for winter's callous indifference to nap location #7 (of 24). 

Oh, March. 

Every year I remind myself that the lions will, at some point, give way to the lambs, but it's hard to keep an eye out for those lambs when I'm racing around the house with bowls, tubs, buckets, and towels to catch the drips and drizzles seeping out of my doorframes, light fixtures and ceilings. We've signed on the dotted line for a beautiful, drip-free new roof, but alas, our roofer ran late last season with installations, so consequently, we came up a season late and a 50% deposit short.

While I've been holed up like a hermit in her drippy cave, I've had a productive month with sex and drugs. Well, research about sex and drugs, anyway. All I need is a Rolling Stone assignment, and I will have scored a trifecta.

Recently, a mother asked me about what might make her son, who was dabbling in drugs and alcohol, listen to her. What could she say that might make him stop and think, maybe even make better choices? I just happen to teach at a drug and alcohol rehab, so I asked my students to respond to her question. I then asked author and addiction expert David Sheff to take a look at what the kids had to say. Turns out, kids are smart. This isn't exactly news to me, but it was a nice reminder that sometimes, all we have to do is ask kids what they need, then listen to their answers. Here's the link to that article, "Teenagers, Dealing with Addiction, on What Have Helped," which appeared in my column, "The Parent-Teacher Conference," at the New York Times Motherlode blog. 

Which leads me to sex. I've wanted to write a piece about sex education for a while, but when NYU professor Jonathan Zimmerman's new book, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education arrived in my mailbox, I knew it was time. Zimmerman's book is fantastic, and it served as the perfect launching pad for a piece about the state of sex education in the United States. Specifically, it's about the history of sex education, what we teach kids and why, where we are now from a social and political standpoint, and where we might be headed. It features interviews with Zimmerman, sex education instructor Karen Rayne, and Savage Love writer and podcaster Dan SavageHere's that article, "What Schools Should Teach Kids About Sex." 

In book news, I just signed the contract for the audiobook of The Gift of Failure, and I am thrilled to announce that I will be recording it myself! Thanks to my Vermont Public Radio editor and producer, Betty Smith, I am feeling more than up to the task. I've known from the beginning of this wild ride that I wanted to record my book -  I wrote it in my teacher and mom voice, after all - so I'm beyond excited I get to head to the studio at the beginning of April. 

Finally, congratulations to the Massachusetts teacher I don't have permission to name who won the February Gift of Failure drawing! I'm always nervous when I put a galley in the mail, but now that the blurbs are in, I can relax a little bit. At the time the manuscript went out to potential blubbers, exactly two people had read the book, my agent and my editor. Well, three, if you include my editor's assistant. And no, not my husband, not my mom, not my friends. Three people do not a representative sample make, so when the book went out to some of the people I respect most in the world for their opinions, opinions that would end up in print, on my book's cover, I was, well, a little freaked. 

Fortunately, they liked it. I am forever grateful to Susan Cain, Gretchen Rubin, Ellen Galinsky, Amanda RipleyDan Willingham, and Jennifer Senior for agreeing to read my manuscript and for bestowing their kind words on its cover. I've included the blurbs at the end of this post, because it makes me all happy inside every time I see them. 

And thanks to all of you for signing up and being a part of this ride. As always, information on my book tour will be available here, and if you are interested in learning more about using The Gift of Failure as your school or community read (or to find out what the heck a community read is), head on over here

Have a great week, and stay tuned for the results of this month's signed galley drawing on March 31 (the day after a public event at 7PM at Resurrection Episcopal Day School in New York City - come on by and say hello!).  


“It’s hard to overstate the importance of this book. The Gift of Failure is beautifully written; it’s deeply researched; but most of all it’s the one book we all need to read if we want to instill the next generation with confidence and joy.” (Susan Cain, author of Quiet)

“How can we help our children grow to be resourceful, happy adults? Lahey shows in practical terms how to know what your child is ready for and how to offer support even as you encourage autonomy. A wise, engaging book, steeped in scientific research and tempered with common sense.” (Daniel T. Willingham, PhD, author of Why Don't Students Like School?)

“This fascinating, thought-provoking book shows that to help children succeed, we must allow them to fail. Essential reading for parents, teachers, coaches, psychologists, and anyone else who wants to guide children towards lives of independence, creativity, and courage.” (Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project)

“Instead of lecturing us about what we’re doing wrong, Jessica Lahey reveals what she did wrong with her own children and students -- and how she systematically reformed her ways. A refreshing, practical book for parents who want to raise resilient kids but aren’t sure how to start.” (Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World)

“Lahey offers one of the most important parenting messages of our times: Unless we allow our children to learn how to take on challenges, they won’t thrive in school and in life. Her extremely helpful book tells her story, compiles research, and provides hundreds of doable suggestions.” (Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making)

Out of the Final Turn and Into the Home Stretch

Yeah, I know. Horse racing analogy, polo image. Whatever. I have a book to write, people. 

I'm so, so close to being done with this book. So close. I can see it out there, glimmering on the horizon, and the only way I know it's not a mirage is that there's a huge brick wall just behind it with the words "HARPERCOLLINS DEADLINE" printed in Times New Roman 5,000 point font.

November first. It's coming, and damn fast.

That said, I'm announcing last call. Serve up your best quotes and experiences and lay 'em out on the bar for my delectation and possible inclusion in my book.

Here's what I'm looking for:

  • experiences of learning from failure 
  • regret because you or your kid did not learn from failure 
  • examples of not allowing kids to experience the consequences of their actions 
  • tales of resilience, perseverance, and diligence 
  • moments when a fixed mindset hampered learning
  • moments when a growth mindset fostered learning 
  • or anything else you think might be relevant

Send them along to the email address over there on the right side of the screen! 

If I use your quote, I will send along a HarperCollins release, and as I am able to assign initials to your quote, it can be anonymous. 

Thanks, everyone. I now understand why the acknowledgement sections of books are so long. There's simply not enough paper to thank all the people involved in this book. 

I Can No Other Answer Make, But Thanks, and Thanks.

I teach my students to send thank you notes. My mother taught me to send thank you notes, and I am teaching my own children to do the same, so it only seems fitting that I should educate my students about the emotional weight of a sincere thank you.

A few years ago, I heard Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg comment in a radio interview - or maybe it was someone commenting on Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg - on the importance of thank you notes. Apparently, Jackie taught them to send thank you notes without fail, and even today, Jackie and Caroline's thank you notes are cherished for their warmth and sincerity, not to mention their historical significance.

So when I sold my book, currently titled The Gift of Failure, to HarperCollins, I set out to convey my gratitude. To every teacher, coach, pastor, parent, administrator, blogger, and reporter who caused the article "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail," originally published at the Atlantic, to go viral.

The piece was published on a Tuesday, it was "viral" by Wednesday, and by the following week, the trajectory of my life had changed. Suddenly, pipe dreams were reality by the end of that month, I found myself with my dream agent and a book deal.

Therefore, I owe a hell of a lot of people thank you notes.

Every day, after school is over, and before my evening begins, I spend about an hour figuring out who shared my article, who took the time to tell their friends and colleagues about my writing.

I try to send real, snail mail notes, but you can't imagine how hard it is to find physical addresses for bloggers and reporters these days. School districts, yes. I can address something to a particular teacher or coach, care of their school district, but it's hard to get email addresses, let alone physical addresses, for most people.

Blogging Tip: If you'd like to be contacted with ideas, thank you notes, or free books, please make an address available. At the very least an email address, but even better, a physical address. Even if it's a PO box.

Gratitude, conveyed with sincerity and care, is underestimated in our society, but it's such a gift. It's been challenging to teach my children about its worth, mainly because developmentally, children are often such self-centered, empathy-challenged narcissists. But I will keep pounding away at that particular lesson until it gets through.

Because over a lifetime, there will be so many people to thank.

When Opportunity Knocks: Anatomy of a Viral Post, Part II

About two months ago, I wrote a post detailing the insanity I encountered when an article I wrote for the Atlantic, "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail," went viral. I wrote the post on a Sunday, it was accepted for publication at the Atlantic on a Monday (after being rejected by a couple of other publications), went live on Tuesday morning, and by Tuesday afternoon, my voicemail was full of interview requests. Thursday through Sunday was a blur, and by the time the dust settled, "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail" had been shared on Facebook almost 100,000 times and had been reprinted in newspapers from Australia to Canada. 

The emails that flooded my inbox were overwhelming. I received letters from school administrators, parents, teachers, coaches, psychologists, all in support of what I'd written, asking questions about how to let their children fail, how to step back and allow their children to learn resilience. A few principals announced they would be handing this article out to every new parent at their school one said that it would be required reading for all new students. Coaches asked me expand my focus to sports and challenge parents to step back and allow their children to experience true sportsmanship through loss. I read every bit of feedback, and it was unfailingly supportive. 

Now, I've been writing on the national stage for a while now, and this absence of negativity threw me for a loop. Purely positive feedback never happens, at least not in my experience. I could write about the process of putting together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I'd receive a torrent of angry emails detailing my prejudice against strawberry jam or my clear and tragic ignorance on the subject of crust-cutting. That's the nature of writing online, and it's part of what I adore about the process. The feedback is immediate, intense, and highly entertaining.

But back to the saga. Two days after I returned home from New York City, I approached the agent I have been courting for many years. She first rejected me seven years ago, after reading my first book, and she was right to let me down easy. That book was a great education in writing, but it had negligible literary or stylistic merit. She certainly could not have sold that book to a publisher. A couple of years later, I tried again, this time with two ideas:
Two years ago, you were kind enough to humor our mutual friend [...] and consider some chapters from my first book, The Education of a Flatlander. While it was not what you were looking to represent at the time, you were incredibly kind and supportive in your rejection. You also encouraged me to try again someday. It's finally someday, and I have a couple of new projects I would like you to consider. I am an avid follower of your blog and Twitter feed and find both of them invaluable in my education as a writer. I hope those lessons, many more publishing credits to my name, and lots of time at the keyboard has raised my game.

...and she she promptly rejected me again. Well, part of my query anyway. She was not interested in the first idea, but she encouraged me to send her a full proposal for the second idea, Coming of Age in the Middle, about teaching middle school. I sent her a proposal for that book - which was, admittedly, half-baked. It was an amorphous collection of thoughts and ideas that had not had proper time to settle into a coherent book. She emailed back:
Dear Jessica,
Thanks for sending your proposal for COMING OF AGE IN THE MIDDLE. I found it engaging, but to be honest, I'm not sure what to make of it. It's a little like reading classroom scene excerpts from a movie script.[...] There isn't a narrative, and it's not a practical guide. I'm perplexed as to how I would pitch it or how a publisher would position it. 

Again, she was totally, absolutely, spot-on. I bashed away at three or four variations of Coming of Age in the Middle idea, but no matter how much I squished it and molded it into something vaguely book-like, it always disintegrated into an unformed heap of essays and blog posts. I didn't really know what book I was writing yet, and she knew it. I kept sending new versions, emails that began, "Hi, it's me again," and god bless her, she kept reading them. But in the end, she wished me luck, patted me on the head, and send me on my way.

When the Atlantic article hit, and the response was so encouraging, I hoped I finally had a project that was worthy of her notice and respect. I emailed her and pleaded for one more try. She'd heard about the success of the Atlantic article, so she agreed to talk to me on the phone that week. And in that phone call, we finally had a meeting of the minds. We both saw it - the same book, clearly defined, pitch-able and sell-able, and we were both eager to to be a part of it. As the conversation drew to a close, she said she'd be sending a contract by email, and if I felt good about working with her, I should sign it, and send it back. 

Finally - dear lord finally - my adoration and respect was requited, and I secured my dream agent,  Laurie Abkemeier of DeFiore and Company. The agent of my dreams. It only took seven years, three queries, and five proposals, all presented to her on bended knee, to get her to say yes. 

Tomorrow's installment: "When Opportunity Knocks: Anatomy of a Viral Post, Part III." In which Laurie and I draft a book proposal, send it out to editors, and find ourselves in a feeding frenzy.