Succeeding at Failure

Summer camp provides all the key ingredients that young people need to develop performance character traits like grit, resilience, tenacity, and an overall growth mindset.

Succeeding at Failure

Summer camp provides all the key ingredients that young people need to develop performance character traits like grit, resilience, tenacity, and an overall growth mindset.

By Bill McMahon, Co-Director

The recent New York Times article “On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus” highlights the most selective colleges are seeing an increasing percentage of their students showing high levels of stress, depression, and the need for counseling. What is most interesting about this phenomenon is that the mental health issues are not from what we would normally consider traumatic events, but from the basic struggles of college life, like receiving a grade lower than one would have liked. The article describes a whole generation of students who are “failure deprived,” which results in them lacking the basic coping mechanisms for when things do not go their way.

To deal with this situation, colleges like Princeton, Stanford, and Penn have developed programs and social media campaigns that are aimed at helping students deal with failure and understand that “life is not that perfect.” Smith’s initiative, titled “Failing Well,” aims to de-stigmatize failure through workshops where students and faculty publicly share instances of failure. The programs aim to teach that “failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature.”

The article outlines multiple causes for the lack of resilience in young people: micromanaging helicopter parents; a culture where everyone gets a trophy; college admission mania among the wealthy where “the preparation starts early, the treadmill never stops, and the stakes can feel impossibly high;” a related but different kind of pressure for first-generation college students to not let their families and communities down; social media which makes one feel “that everyone but you is a star;” and the recent cultural phenomenon that conflates stress with success.

After reading the story, I had two strong reactions. The first was amazement and sadness at the lack of resilience and overall positive mental health of young people today—especially those that have achieved so much. Near the end of the article, the author appears to have a similar reaction when she embraces the question that a cover story in Psychology Today recently asked: “At what point do colleges end up more like mental health wards than institutions of higher learning?”

My second reaction was simply this: more kids need to go to an overnight summer camp like Moosilauke. This is because a great summer camp provides all the key ingredients young people need to develop performance character traits like grit, resilience, tenacity, and an overall growth mindset. According to Paul Tough in his book “How Children Succeed” the research is in: these traits are more important than cognitive ability to success, leadership, and happiness.

At Moosilauke, the development of these essential traits comes from a unique combination of elements that includes:

  • A community where campers learn to navigate the ups and downs of living in close quarters with 5-10 of their peers from different socio-economic, geographic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds–without their parents present.

  • A community where campers are given real responsibility for themselves, the cleanliness of their cabins, and the success of their trips and activities–without their parents present.

  • A community where adults who are not their parents develop strong bonds with campers and provide much-needed mentoring.

  • A program that requires campers to try new things and experience related failures–on the waterfront, in land sports, and in outdoor adventure experiences.  At Moose, you can’t just specialize in your strengths.

  • A great peer culture that supports campers to step out of their comfort zone and try things they are not good at.

In a previous blog titled “Peer Culture: How a Camp Creates a Great One,” I outlined key elements that help Moosilauke create a culture where boys are comfortable being themselves, try new things, and become their best selves in the process. Chief among them is a high return rate among campers (80-90%) and staff (60%), so we don’t have to recreate our culture from scratch every year. Also, an eight day orientation where we turn our staff into boy experts, formal avenues for practicing gratitude, and a very vigilant approach to ensuring that the minute-to-minute life of our campers is positive.

At Moosilauke, we have also found that setting the bar high, being clear about our expectations, and then creating routine and formal opportunities for boys to talk about their experience also are integral to developing a positive and healthy culture.

It all starts on the very first day. After dinner, I give a talk to the camp that lets everyone know Moose is a place where they will be supported to be their best self and try new things; it is cool to be nice and where teasing is not tolerated.  After fun age group name games, we then have the first cabin meeting where counselors lead their charges through an exercise where they create the “rules of the road” relative to how they will live together in close quarters in a fun, respectful, and inclusive manner. (The meeting ends with all campers signing their name on the document.)

The following day Sabina and I meet with all new campers where we reiterate that camp should be a fun and positive place and ask the kids to discuss what could keep camp from being fun. Over the next few days, Sabina and I and our head counselors also meet with all the campers in age group meetings that allow them to talk about their hopes (and fears) for the summer.

Throughout the summer, the process of being clear about expectations and giving our campers a chance to discuss their experience continues. Each Sunday night is our special cookout evening where cabin groups eat hamburgers and hot dogs at their cabins while formally discussing what has gone well during the week and where they could better support each other.

As new events come on the horizon—like our first competition with other camps and even our first camp-wide capture the flag game–we also formally take the time to talk with the community about how Moose can be its best self. Our first “social” with a girls’ camp is always preceded by an important but fun discussion that usually ends with a camp wide dance lesson.

Finally, it is not uncommon to pull a cabin together after a meal if a counselor feels like they need some special attention. At these meetings, I will get the group in a circle and ask them why we are meeting. Invariably, they will tell me 2 or 3 things I did not know about before they get to the topic. (Parents, try this at home!)  The meeting will then entail campers discussing things their peers are doing that do not feel good. After this airing of feelings, maybe an apology or two, and a few handshakes, the cabin is back on track.

Michael Thompson, one of the leading experts on boys and youth development, is a huge advocate for summer camps precisely because they provide all these ingredients I have outlined—without the presence of parents. He writes: “Does an overnight camp experience still make sense in this competitive, resume-building world? From this psychologist’s point of view, the answer is a resounding YES. I believe that children develop in profound ways when they leave their parents’ house and join a camp community.”

And for all those who believe in the power of summer camps but still worry that they don’t “read well” to colleges, Thompson writes: “…college admissions officers…say that they think former campers are more likely to succeed in college because they have had successful experiences away from home, and they are always impressed by seniors who have been counselors looking after younger children. Camp helps build confidence and identity; it also builds leadership skills.”

From my experience as a director of admissions at a highly selective boarding school it is always a plus when I read a candidate’s file and find that they have spent multiple summers away from home for significant periods at a summer camp.