229: Nurturing Grit — The Art of Failing Forward, with John Willson

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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Everyone needs grit for self-actualization. Without experiencing that we can do hard things and be okay on the other side, we don’t feel truly successful and fulfilled. Of course, we want this for our kids — we want them to have grit and to feel a great sense of achievement and purpose.

So how do we foster grit in our kids (and ourselves, btw)? The short answer is that we allow failure and then learn and grow from it. As the executive director of SOAR, John Willson (or Big John as I and his campers know him) explains to us, it means that it’s imperative that we stop rescuing our kids too quickly. We must teach them to “fail forward,” as he calls it. We must step back and watch the hard thing happen to them or witness them really struggling with something, and then wait for the recovery and the sense of true accomplishment to hit them. Doability and support are crucial, of course. Listen in for the full conversation on helping kids build grit.

3 Key Takeaways

01

Building Grit: It’s vital for our children to learn how to push through challenges and develop resilience. By avoiding the trap of rescuing them too quickly, we can create opportunities for growth, self-discovery, and the development of grit. Letting them face difficult situations head-on and learn from failures prepares them for success in the long run.

02

“Failing Forward”: The concept of “failing forward” encourages us to view failure as a stepping stone to success. It’s through learning from our mistakes and using them as motivation to improve that we achieve greatness. We need to teach our children that setbacks are not permanent but rather valuable learning experiences that help them become more resilient and determined.

03

Experiences Create Lifelong Memories: Engaging in adventurous activities and creating lasting memories with our children forms the fabric of our lives. These shared experiences not only foster stronger connections with our kids but also help them develop confidence, problem-solving skills, and a broader perspective on life. Whether it’s a camping trip, a challenging hike, or a thrilling rafting adventure, these moments will stay with them forever.

What You'll Learn

About the trap of not wanting to see kids hurting and its consequences on their growth — Kids need the stretch and discomfort to grow

The initial nervousness and subsequent positive experiences when encountering new opportunities

The importance of having support networks in challenging situations

The significance of teaching children how to rescue themselves from difficult moments for a sense of accomplishment

The benefits of success in developing grit and resilience

Encouraging children to push through “I can’t” moments and learn from failures

The concept of “failing forward” and using failures as opportunities for growth

The correlation between lack of grit and constant failure in life

The positive impact of experiencing challenges like COVID for personal growth

Resources

Some of the resources may be affiliate links, meaning I receive a commission (at no cost to you) if you use that link to make a purchase.

Homesick and Happy, by Michael Thompson

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My Guest

John Willson

John Willson has a B.A. in Sociology and a Master’s degree in Outdoor Therapeutic Recreation Administration. He has spent over 30 years working in youth programs with an emphasis on children diagnosed with learning and attention challenges. He has led hundreds of adventure courses throughout North America, Costa Rica, and Belize. He is currently the Executive Director of SOAR, a non-profit residential academic boarding school, summer adventure camp, and Gap year program serving youth diagnosed with learning disabilities and ADHD.

Along with his responsibilities at SOAR, John has served as the President of the Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) of North Carolina and on the National Board of CHADD. In addition, he has been an adjunct professor at Western Carolina University and Mars Hill College teaching Outdoor Recreation, Therapeutic Recreation, and Leadership courses. His certifications include Wilderness First Responder, PADI Rescue Diver, State licensed Recreation Therapist, and Nationally Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist. He actively presents to teachers, parents, and professionals at local, state, and national conferences. Finally, and most importantly, he is an adult thriving with ADHD and the proud parent of two magnificent, creative, children living with learning and attention challenges.

 

Transcript

John Willson [00:00:03]: Be a support. Create opportunities to provide nurturing instruction, but do not rescue. and do not do it for them, and give them the chance to fail, and then learn from that failure, and then keeps driving, and find success. Because that's where Grub lives and that's where that reservoir strength that was talking about earlier comes from.

Penny Williams [00:00:27]: Welcome to the beautifully complex podcast where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Willson, I'm a parenting coach author and mindset, Mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started.

Penny Williams [00:00:50]: Welcome back to the beautifully complex podcast. I am thrilled to be bringing you John Wilson who runs soar that is a camp for kids with ADHD. with trucks and things all over the country. I'll let John tell you all about that. So we get the right details, but We went to family weekend there, I think, at least 10 years ago, it's been now and had a great time, and I've always been a huge fan of soire. And so I am really excited to have John here and sharing some of his wisdom about nurturing grit and the art of falling forward. So will you start by just introducing yourself and let everybody know who you are and what you do?

John Willson [00:01:38]: Well, Penny, thanks, and I appreciate the invitation to speak on your podcast. My name is John Wilson. I'm SOAR's executive director. SOAR is a nationally recognized adventure based camp residential boarding school, and gap year programs, specifically serving youth diagnosed with learning and attention challenges. and we do it in a pre remarkable way. We focus on adventure and experience education. So we're taking kids backpack and rock climbing and snorkeling and sea kayaking. And there's a course where you can learn to scuba dive. We're going what we're rafting. And repelling and rock climbing and doing all these wonderful extraordinary horsebacking expeditions. We have programs in Florida, North Carolina, Wyoming, California, Costa Rica, and it's a pretty special experience. Mhmm. Where, you know, one of the largest programs in the world that specifically serves this population.

Penny Williams [00:02:34]: That's amazing. Yeah. We had the best time at family weekend -- Uh-huh. -- rafting and challenging ourselves, our beers. Right? And learning a little more about ourselves. It was fantastic. Let's dive into grit. What do you mean when you use the word grint.

John Willson [00:02:51]: So it's interesting. So I'll give you my definition of grit, which is a little different than Webster's. My definition of grit is when you have a reservoir of strength that you can draw upon when faced with conditions that are particularly difficult or challenging, and you draw on that well to allow you to push forward and drive through and achieve your goals and expectations. It is something that we don't come by naturally. It it is earned. and it is earned through overcoming adversity. It is earned through pushing out of your comfort zone, and it is earned by successfully achieving things that are hard and difficult. We had a kid once say in a video, it was really cute. He said, you know, your comfort zone is a nice place to be, but nothing grows there.

Penny Williams [00:03:45]: So true. And I think so many of our neurodiversian kids really struggle with pushing themselves and trying to do hard things. They tend to really wanna stay in that comfort zone and not take a risk or a chance sometimes And it's really tough then to build resilience and grit from that space.

John Willson [00:04:10]: Well and COVID certainly didn't help. Right? And so No. We're seeing kids that are more anxious than prior to COVID. Mhmm. And there's some fearfulness there. There's a wonderful book that a a woman wrote called Homestead and Happy. Right? Because, you know, home sickness is a great, actually, you know, way to develop grit. You go to a place like summer camp. and your home stay, and you you feel this angst about wanting to be home, but you're gonna push and persevere through that. And whenever we find ourselves encountering new opportunities, even into adulthood, we get a little nervous and scared. And initially, sometimes it isn't what met our expectations, and we kinda wanna retreat back to our comfort place. But if you have enough experiences, reminders, hey, that time at camp. I was really homesick. But I ended up having such a good time in making all these wonderful friends. Yeah. And if I just take it out a little bit longer, and keep putting one foot in front of another, you know, I'm gonna get to that place. You know, I I mean, the last time I experienced that I was in graduate school, and I thought, oh my god. What have I done? I've made this terrible steak, and it ended up being a really beautiful, powerful experience.

Penny Williams [00:05:15]: Yeah. And, you know, so often, we know that our kids can do it. We know they can do hard things. It's a matter of them feeling that and accepting that and being willing to push themselves that I think is so challenging sometimes with our kids. And I know that soar does a great job of helping with this It was certainly our experience at family weekend, you know, we were pushed out of our comfort zone on many occasions. But my kid who I think was, like, 9 at the time, and now he's 20, was really proud of himself after that experience. really proud. And like you said, noticing these things, right, calling attention to the times that they did something hard. is really helpful. Right?

John Willson [00:06:02]: You know, it's true. And what are you more proud of? The things that came easy to you or the things that you had to work to overcome, to figure out, to strive for. I mean, honestly, all of us recognize that those are the things in our lives that matter. The challenge is that kids today sometimes get really frustrated and are willing to give up and not try and not push through those moments of I can't. Mhmm. I've watched kids on a rock climb site. I can't all the way themselves to the top. I can't do this. I can't do this. I can't do this. You know? And I will just just try and reach one more little little spot. You know, you can come down whenever you need or want to, but just see if you can make one a small go. I can't do what I can't do. And next thing you know, they've stepped up, and and they've actually climbed, you know, another 2 feet. And, you know, I wanna come down. Great. You can come down, or, you know, you could maybe try one more move. I just like can, then boom. And next thing you know, I say, hey, you're at the top. What? Yeah. You know? And and then you take those experiences and you you remind kids through other adversity that they were able to kinda push through and surprise themselves. Yeah. And I caught failing forward. If we don't fail forward, and instead, we just experienced failure after failure after failure and we quit, then the opposite of credit occurs. and that is we've become fearful and afraid to try, and we don't expand our horizons. and we give up. Yeah. And in adulthood, those factors don't compel folks towards success. You know, willing to take a chance, willing to strive, striving for something excellent, or striving for something better. willing to kind of persevere and push through. Those become critical to our survival as individuals as we're trying to achieve some measures success and happiness in our lives. And without it, it can be really devastating. And there's a real correlation between the lack of grit and folks who experience failure as a constant in their lives.

Penny Williams [00:08:11]: Yeah. The story you were talking about with a kid climbing the rock What struck me were 2 things. 1, he had encouragement. He had someone supporting him through it. And the other was that it was broken down into small steps. You you don't need to climb to the top.

John Willson [00:08:33]: There's a third component there, and that third is it was a challenge by choice. He was making choice. Mhmm. He had the choice to say, you know what? I'll come down. Right. But he was being encouraged to just maybe try a just just extend yourself a little bit more. And it's that choice Grit really has a very powerful impact when individuals are striving for something and then experience success through adversity.

Penny Williams [00:08:53]: Yeah. And we so often need to support our kids in that in those ways. Like, this is a good map for raising and educating neurodiversion kids.

John Willson [00:09:07]: I will tell you about a very poignant moment in our family's life and to this day, it still resonates with my son. And I have permission to share this story. I I got a phone call from my wife, and she said, I need you to get home right away. I just got off the phone with Jay, who, by the way, at the time, was in the 7th grade. and the message she got from Jay was that he wanted to kill himself. I'm 15 minutes from home. I made it there in 7. I walked in, I said, hey, ma'am. How are you doing? And I'm not having a great day. And I'm like, okay. Well, hey, listen, I've been meaning to show you something. I think it's time. And I took him outside, and I have bought him this little flint and steel kit to make to spark a fire. And I had a tinder bundle ready, and I put it together for him, and I showed him how to strike a fire. And of course, you know, dad got it in one try. And then, like, gave him the Tender bundle, and he was really excited to try. He started, you know, doing the foot and steel. And know, he wasn't getting a very good spark. And so we practice technique, and then he was struggling. Yeah. And I said, I I'm gonna go inside. You you can keep working on this. He's like, well, can I come inside? I'm like, sure. After you start a fire, Well, what? I can't come inside, so I'm starting to fire. I'm like, no. You cut all the tools to make this happen. You know, this is you can do this. You've got this. Well, I would check on him every few minutes, and he was probably working with that thing for 30 to 45 minutes, and his hands hurt. He was like, dad, This made her 100, and I said, what do you wanna quit? Yes? No? Yes? I said, okay. Well, you can quit anytime you want to. well, can I come inside? No. No. No. No. You can't come inside and start a fire. So he kept at it, and so we worked on more technique. We fluffed up the little Tinder bundle. We, you know, we got and and by this time, he was getting really good strikes like any one of these sparks. couldn't hit. But to our great advantage, you know, he really, really had to work. And so about 45 minutes into trying, and been being frustrated and wanting to quit, and throw the thing down, and pick it back up, and start again. One of those sparks finally caught the little tender upon wildfire. and all of a sudden, he had this flame. I mean, this really nice sized flame, and I'm celebrating it with him. And I said, Jay, how does that feel? And he said, it feels like Christmas morning. And I said, do you know why? He says, yeah. Because I had to work so hard to get it done. And finally, it worked. And it worked because I did it. And I said, that's right. Part of the reason it feels so good is because you thought you weren't gonna get it, and you had to work really hard to do that. Right? He's like, yeah. I said, today was kind of a tough day, wasn't it? He said, yeah. And I said, you know, we have to sometimes have those days in order for us to climb the mountain and have these extraordinary days where if we just keep pushing and striving and working towards resolution and finding new opportunities and growing, we get to have these moments that feel like Christmas. I said, you know what that's called sun? And he said, no, dad, what? I said, that's called grit. And from that day forward, anytime that he was struggling or he was, you know, wanting to give up, he started running cross country. and I'd yell, where's your grit? And you could see determination kind of come across his face because he knew that if he's just pushed a little harder he would find that moment at the end. Yeah. And then as we had a chance to talk about his day, it wasn't that he wanted to kill himself. it it was just a really lousy day to be Jay, and he kinda wished he hadn't been born. Mhmm. And so when we're at those low moments, and then we find ourselves striving towards something. And when we achieve it, it's just a miraculous experience. And so Jay found his grit in the 7th grade. And every once in a while, we just remind him, you know, where's your grit, and you see this determination come over his face. And I honestly believe that we rescue kids far too quickly -- Yeah. -- and don't let them learn from struggle and learn from, you know, failure and then be able to learn how to fail forward. And when we rescue kids and don't give them those opportunities to fail and then learn from those experiences, we are eliminating terrific opportunities to help nurture grid because grid only comes when you've got to drive towards success. Now that story is such a remarkable example of that because I didn't take his hand and start that fire for him We talked about technique. We made sure that he had the right resources. I created an environment which I knew he could be successful. Right. But ultimately, he had to do that for himself. And when that occurs, it's really special. And so when we try and create those challenges for our kids, and and give them those experiences, my advice to your listeners is, you know, be a support create opportunities to provide nurturing and instruction but do not rescue and do not do it for them. and give them the chance to fail and then learn from that failure and then keeps driving and find success. Yeah. Because that's where growth lives and that's where that reservoir strength that I was talking about earlier comes from. And without it, you know, it is in the work. Yeah. soars this adventure high adventure program, and it's sort of based on that word bound model. And the outward bound model is a great example of what happens with folks who have grit and the lack of grit. Kurt Hahn years ago found that in World War 2, naval seamen that were sunk, that the young, healthy kids who should have lived died when they were in the ocean, when the boats were sunk, but the grizzled old veterans who might not have been as healthy, they lived. And why? Why was that the case? Well, the grizzledove veterans had belief. They had been through adversity. Yeah. They believed they would overcome their circumstances. and it gave them a will, and the reservoir strength to draw upon. The younger folks didn't have it. They had that lack of belief, and they didn't strive to survive. and perished. And so this whole idea about nurturing grit and developing resilience and helping folks find that within themselves that sense of belief that I can overcome became an industry.

Penny Williams [00:15:45]: It's such an important life skill to be able to push through, right, and to build that grit. I am certainly guilty of doing too much and rescuing in the past. I think that a lot of parents are We fall into that trap of not wanting to see our kids hurting, and we overdo it. And we overcompensate. And so it is really important. And I think too, I noticed during COVID that kids were really thinking it was the end of the world. And thought, you know, they haven't gone through anything else yet like we have. We've been through several things in our lifetimes. but they hadn't been through something that extraordinary, and it returned to some sort of normalcy. Right? And I think that's part of learning that hard things happen, really hard things, really scary things can happen. but we can also get past him.

John Willson [00:16:40]: You know, Penny, my daughter just graduated and she is the 1st class to have a normal graduation since COVID. Maybe the secret blessing of COVID is that these kids have experienced something that was really hard. Yeah. And they can draw back and look at what they had to do to successful and know that they've experienced something unlike any I mean, that event is seminal. I mean, we'd never experience anything like that. I mean, of course, you know, I used to have to learn how to hide under my desk in case there was a nuclear war. Right? And and a fear of that, but, you know, which thankfully our kids haven't had to do. But Oh, they have their own horrible drills. That's right. They have their horrible drills. Mhmm. Really scary.

Penny Williams [00:17:29]: That's a tough world. I wanted to talk a little bit more about your concept of failing forward. k. Can you give us maybe an example? What does that look like?

John Willson [00:17:39]: Sure. So and this is really important to our ADHD, you know, population, our neurodiverse population because most models of problem solving look something like, you know, take an assessment. What are your resources? What's my real objective? What am I trying to accomplish? Then when you have all those together, you make a plan. and a plan to succeed, a plan to kinda overcome or achieve the thing that you're trying to do. And then once you have all those pieces, you actually implement the plan. Right? Right. Whether it works or not, you evaluate what you need to do differently and then kinda start back at that assessment piece. Are there more resources that I needed that I didn't have. But our kids, obviously, they jump right in and to implement. Right? Mhmm. Yep. And so they're inevitably going to fail. And so if failure is going to be their first step, why can't we start to view that as practice? as an opportunity to learn what we don't know, to make mistakes and experience pitfalls, and figure out what doesn't work then go back and look at what are those resources that I need, what was I missing, and then make a new plan. Because some of us, you know, conceptually need to sort of get our fingers all up in it and tear it apart before we can understand what it is that we are trying to accomplish. So failing forward is the idea that I can expect to fail, and then I'm gonna learn from that failure experience. and I'm going to then find the resources I need, the tools I need, the support I need in order to try and achieve the objective that I'm trying to achieve. Yeah. There's 2 little interesting caveats here or or not caveats, but wonderful quotes I wanna share. K. When Willson was asked, you know, how he came up with a light bulb. He said, well, I learned, you know, what? Was it 2156 ways to how not to make a light bulb? Mhmm. Again, I just pulled that number in there, but it was something like that. It was a lot. Yeah. And then Isaac Asimov, who wrote, you know, the robot series for science fiction, wrote this wonderful quote that I think makes so much sense, and it is that great discoveries in science are rarely heralded by the words eureka, but instead, That's funny. Right? And so that's how we learn. We learn because funny weird stuff happens and, like, oh, you know what? I could apply that to this over here. Yeah. So one of the secrets of what we do at Sore is we call the metaphor transfer of learning. And We experience failure or success. We talk about it, and then we're gonna try again. And then we're gonna see if we can relate those strategies that we employed to be successful back to home and real life situations. You experienced that on the family weekend. Yeah. Well and the rafting trip. We talked about, okay. What happens if we get stuck on a rock? What do we do? Do we yell? Do we scream? Do we vicar? Do we cry? Do we all just panic and give up? Well, no. We keep finding different strategies and work together. By the way, I don't know if I ever told you this, but we would get stuck on rocks on purpose in order to give you that experience.

Penny Williams [00:20:46]: Yeah. I experienced that. And I went over and under the raft. Yeah. Yes. That was my experience. I I had a feeling.

John Willson [00:20:57]: And, you know, and and I I've often reflected those moments. Those kind of those war stories. Those I fell out. I went under the raft, but I overcame that makes that experience so much more powerful for you than, oh, it was nothing. Than it being easy. It was it was easy. It was nothing. And that it was nothing. Right? And so it's those moments where we have to, you know, survive to strive forward. Again, that's grit, and when we can give that to our kids and provide experiences for them to do so, then we are honoring the spirit of adventure and growth.

Penny Williams [00:21:30]: Yeah. It's so good too for anxiety. You know, I have anxiety. And so I started that rafting trip telling Joe, I think it was. I'm so anxious. My kids don't know how to swim. Like, I gave him the whole spiel. So, of course, he was gonna need to push Right? Not just the kids, but me. And I ended up being the one who got wet. But yeah. It was so fun, though. Like, I wouldn't have chosen to go rafting. But I went because it was part of this weekend, and then I was like, I wanna do this again. you know, and I kayak all the time now, which is something I probably wouldn't have done before that either. So just me as the parent had a great experience there, but so did my kids. And we talked a lot about, you know, how you apply that now in your life, to real life stuff. because I think without that, it gets lost. Our kids, especially, like, my son's also on the spectrum, and he really needs to, like, really overtly connect things like that. Right? And so that's, I think, a key piece of what you were talking about as well is making sure that we tell them what that means for real life, everyday life.

John Willson [00:22:45]: You know, and I think that the final thing I'll say about nurturing grid to your listeners is just like you were kind of stretched and pulled out of your comfort zone on the on the raft, We also had lots of protocols in place to make sure that as you experience adversity, you were going to be okay. Right. And so that's where that support network is critical. You know, allow for failure, but still have the support necessary to allow kids to learn from those failures and then keep pushing forward. You know, someone once said, you know, what about a sink or swim mentality? Right? And then the answer is when was drowning ever a growth experience for somebody? Right. But if you are tossed in the deep end of the pool, and you're able to make it to the end and rescue yourself, you're going to feel much better about that than if a life vest or something was thrown to you to rescue you. Right. But one should be there just to make sure -- Mhmm. -- we want to find ways to continue to nurture. And And one of the key ingredients at Sohri is we push kids to the point that we know that they can be successful because success is something that our kids desperately need. And -- Yes. -- we want to provide for that because success breeds success, which in turn helps create grit.

Penny Williams [00:24:01]: Yeah. And, too, the more successes we experience, the more our brain wires in that way. You know, there's so much biology behind it to you. It's really, really powerful stuff. For everyone listening, I wanna make sure that you know how to connect. with John and with Sore and learn more about Sore, not only the summer camps, but also the school that is there as well. And you can find links to that in their social media and any references that we've talked about as well at parentingadhdandautism.com/229 for episode 229. Any last words of wisdom you want to share?

John Willson [00:24:43]: Sure. And you can reach out to us directly at our website is sorenc.org, and My last piece of wisdom comes from being at the tail end of getting a chance to raise 2 remarkable kids, and my daughter will be going off to college. Pardon me. he'll choked up thinking about it. Yeah. But one of the things that I did, and I'm really glad I did, was I never played the What's next game or I can't wait until game. Instead, I made sure that I enjoyed every single moment and tried to maximize the growth opportunity and the fun and the experience opportunity of every chance I got to spend with my kids. And so understanding that its moments and experiences in time with each other that create the fabric that we use the tapestry of our lives. And so Get out there and do things with your kids. Yeah. Have experiences. Have adventures.

Penny Williams [00:25:41]: Make memories because those memories also create grit. Yeah. And it goes by so fast as I'm sure you can attest now as well. It goes by so fast. So I love that. Well, I wanna thank everyone for listening. And, of course, thank you for being here, John, and sharing some of your experiences at Willson and about Sore as well. and I will see everyone next time. Take good care.

Penny Williams [00:26:07]: Thanks for joining me on the beautifully complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingadhdandautism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com.

Thank you!

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I'm your host, Penny.

Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

My approach to decoding behavior while honoring neurodiversity and parenting the individual child you have will provide you with the tools to help you understand and transform behavior, reduce your own stress, increase parenting confidence, and create the joyful family life you crave. I am honored to have helped thousands of families worldwide to help their kids feel good so they can do good.

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