In many wealthy families, the second generation is anxious that they’ll be the cause of failure. With great insecurity, they’re careful, cautious and conservative with the family wealth. That wealth was created by great entrepreneurs, who risked and won (and often lost, though those aren’t the treasured family stories). That same generation looks at their adult children and deeply believes that they shouldn’t be trusted with the control of much wealth (hence the robust trust industry).
No one talks about this.
We’ve heard a second-generation member confide that she can’t sleep at night: she’s terrified she’ll be the one to blame if the wealth decreases.
We’ve heard fathers berate their sons for any failure at a business venture. The cycle of insecurity only deepens, and still no one talks about it.
We promote a practice of family meetings, where the unspoken subjects (those dear elephants in the closet) can be brought up and thoughtfully discussed.
Essential Part of Learning
The chance to fail is an essential part of any learning: from falling off a bike to trusting a Madoff. Young children today are so protected by “helicopter parents” that they have no chance to fail, skin their knees or assemble tricky puzzles. At the other end of the spectrum is the theory behind the Montessori schools, which claim to be teaching independence at a young age. On the wall of a school for two year olds is this message: “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” How many parents can stand back and watch a child risk failure?
A professor at the University of Virginia Business School promotes teaching “failure:” “This is true in life as it is in the classroom. Failing—and being willing to try to understand and learn from your failure—is the recipe for resilience.”
Adult children can grow and thrive if they have the support of the family to go ahead and risk failure; it’s the way to learn. Some families set up a Family Venture Fund to provide funds for the family member who wants to try a new venture. These are often very disciplined programs. The applicant must present and defend a solid business plan, a committee will monitor the project, the applicant must have some of his own money in the venture and include a pay-back plan. The risk of failure is part of the deal.
Celebration of Failure
Some families even celebrate failures—as great learning experiences. Even Bill Gates, not known for his failures, sees them as crucially important: “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” We promote giving support and encouragement to those who fail to keep them confident and receptive to a learning mode. One Carnegie Hall musician still thinks about her father’s scolding when she missed a spelling bee in the fourth grade. That isn’t support and encouragement.
The whole family, all the generations, can participate in talking about family failures in an instructive and positive tone, with lessons to learn from each story. Children can benefit from hearing their father (or mother) tell about the early struggles, the risks, the losses and the wins. Cousins can tell each other their own stories: where they’ve failed and where they’ve succeeded. The family culture can become valued as reassuring, educational and supportive. If there’s a family history book project, including the failures will seem automatic.
In closing, we all like success too. A wise Indian man (Paramahansa Yogananda) had this attitude: “The season of failure is the best time for sowing the seeds of success.”