Try, Fail, Get up and Try Again

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Do you remember that moment when your parents said “Now you will learn to walk. These are the rules: stand up, move your right foot forward, shift the weight,  and move the left foot in front of the right foot. Repeat”?

No? Of course not, and not because you were too little to remember, but because it never happened. Learning to walk, to speak, to draw, are basic human activities built on attempt upon attempt. The mantra is “try-fail-get-up-and-try-again”, until that magic moment when everything comes together, balance is found and the child… walks!

No one tells a child she is a failure if she falls while trying to walk. It is a recognized part of the process. Every time that child falls, the brain makes new synapses, until it gets the complete picture and can reach the objective. We do not learn despite failure, we learn from failure. Each error contains valuable information that accumulates until we get access to a higher level.

If we stop to think about it, we all know this. For every child that walks, how many falls? For every goal scored, how many failed shots? For one working lightbulb, how many failed experiments?

Yet, as we grow and become integrated in society, we seem to forget those early lessons. We begin to see failure not simply as not having achieved an objective, but as a permanent condition that contains a heavy moral judgement. “I have failed” becomes “I am a failure”, a stigma that cannot be erased, a cross for life, something to be ashamed of, to hide away from hostile eyes, while we live in fear that someone will find out and expose us.

Thus, a vicious circle is started, where the fear of failure becomes performance anxiety, which in turn severely affects our ability to think and act lucidly under stress. Psychological studies establish a strong relationship between fear of failure and procrastination, which in turn undermines our ability to achieve our goals. Fear of failure is crippling. It generates unbearable pressure, creating a paralysis that stops human investigation; in its most acute form, it finds outlets in food disturbances, panic attacks, and so on, as any university counsellor knows only too well.

We live in a society that promotes success, in all spheres, and constantly bombards us with models that are impossible to match. “Get good grades!”, “Be thin!”, “Be cool!”, “Be rich!”. This is compounded by the message that all of this, and more, can be accomplished without effort. Every blogger knows that in order to attract readers they have to use catchy titles like: “3 Easy Tricks to Ace Exams”, “Lose 10 Pounds in 1 Week”, “7 Ways To Achieve Health”, “8 Secrets of Success”; these and hundreds of similar headlines shout at us from blogs, Facebook posts, and email messages, luring us into believing that success is the sole objective of life, that the secret to achieve it is available to all, and that it can be reached without effort. Success is presented as a standardised good, and anyone who hasn’t got it, is a loser.

“I failed to reach an objective” becomes “I am a failure”

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This has become a real problem at university, where even without the anxiety attacks, fear of failure creates a strong incentive to stay within a safe zone, not to run risks, not to try anything new. At best, it pushes students to seek guidance instead of pursuing exploration. For every assignment, they want detailed guidelines; they want to know how to structure the paper, what information to include, which bibliography to consult. They want to get it just right. They will probably turn in a perfectly acceptable paper that will be hard to criticise, but reading it will be like drinking flat cola: it will be sweet, it will have the right color, but it will have no fizz. Similarly, a paper that follows the rules too closely runs the risk of having no originality and of being a beautiful exercise in futility.

As a New York Times article recounts, universities are tackling the issue by creating programs to help high achievers cope with basic setbacks.  One such project, undertaken by Smith College, an independent women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, involved projecting high-performing students’ worst failures on a giant screen. The impact was striking, and the message clear:  failure “is not a bug in learning, it is a feature”. Other familiar – Harvard, Princeton, and University of Pennsylvania, just to mention a few -names are joining in and devising their own strategies.

These are great initiatives, but it is a sad state of affairs when universities have to take on the role of psychologists instead of focusing on instruction!

The “Privilege of Failure”

Our children are caught between the twin evils: on the one hand, high pressure to achieve some sort of extrinsic definition of “success”, and on the other hand the fear of not achieving it. Caught between the two, they have lost what I call the “privilege of failure”.

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Being comfortable with the knowledge of one’s own imperfection is essential to build resilience, which in turn is essential to overcome a setback and improve performance. Once failure is stripped of the terror of social stigma, of the crushing feeling of permanence, it becomes a valuable vehicle for information. In an academic setting, failure can say “you have not studied enough”, or “you have not studied in the right way”; being able to listen to that message, however unpleasant, is the first step towards improvement: we recognise the problem, and we work harder. A time may come when we are confronted with an obstacle that is unsurmountable, even after having put in the maximum effort, to the best of our ability; at that point, we will have to concede that that is how far we are going to travel down that road. That is part of living, it means recognising that that is who we are, and there is great value in it: it opens up new paths!

The Privilege of Failure in Research

The same ideas play out in the world of research. Every discovery starts with a “what if” question. What if we could use electricity to light our lamps? What if we could carry our phones with us at all times? What if we could travel to the moon? But if we are paralysed by fear of failure, if we expect to have all the right answers lined up without any risk, we are never going to embark upon a “What if” journey. If we were all uncomfortable with failure, we would not have research. If as a nation we lose our collective capacity to imagine and to explore, we are doomed. Not trying is the ultimate failure!

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In fact, I would like to borrow from science the term of Productive Failure. Manu Kapur, Professor and Chair of Learning Sciences and Higher Education at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, has researched this topic in depth. He maintains that a learning process that incorporates failure results in a much greater ability to solve complex problems. In his paper Designing for Productive Failure , he proposes a two-phase learning process where the first phase is based on discovery learning, unstructured and explorative, while the second phase consists of direct instruction, where knowledge is consolidated and assembled. Through multiple experiments, he shows that even though direct instruction leads to success sooner than discovery learning, students who are exposed to the latter produce superior performance in subsequent stages.

In essence, his position is that easy, linear success is unproductive in terms of the learning outcome, while failure contains information that can lead to stronger problem-solving skills.

Failure and Entrepreneurship

H.R. Macy, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, the list goes on… what do they have in common, other than success? They have failed, not once but multiple times. They also have recognised that in each of those failures there was valuable information about how to do things better. They have not sought failure, who does, but they have accepted it and learned from it, without allowing it to crush their spirit.

In a world filled with new challenges, including faster development cycles, exponential technologies, the dark side of globalisation, and the moral challenges of artificial intelligence, we need new skills. Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, an approach to creating new ventures that underpins the endeavors of a whole generation of entrepreneurs, does not use the term “productive failure”, but his concept is not dissimilar.

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Lean startup is a methodology for developing businesses and products, which aims to shorten product development cycles by adopting a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, iterative product releases, and validated learning.

This essentially says that if you are going to fail, you had better do it quickly, at the lowest cost possible, with the most gain possible. The most important message, though, is that failure is part of the process, it carries no stigma, and no value judgement. It simply provides information that is then incorporated in the development process. In fact, in this model, failure becomes feedback, and suddenly it is no longer a bad word, it is a precious part of the process.

Does this mean that all entrepreneurial ventures are successful? Of course not! Wired magazine has recently published an article about 20 clamorous failures, including the flying car, pens created for women,  Microsoft’s annoying Clippy, or even Google Glass. Many useless inventions that seem to go nowhere. However, without these collective failures, we probably would not have the driverless car, nor would we be thinking of space travel. In his article “Struggling with Uncertainty and Embracing Failure”,Eric Ries drives the point home simply and effectively:

In these circumstances, we have to assume that some projects won’t survive. And that’s okay.

This is the main difference between an established company and a startup. An established company has a clear set of activities that lead to the production of goods and services and to serving customers. A startup’s most immediate goal is to learn how to build a sustainable business. A startup turns ideas into products, then measures how customers respond, and learns whether to persevere or to change direction completely. No successful business looks like the first version of itself!

This is what I love about entrepreneurship in a wider sense: it requires wonderful qualities such as imagination, vision, creativity, determination and resilience, that become anchored in reality by a scientific process. Contrary to common opinion, entrepreneurs are not risk takers, in fact they will do everything in their power to minimise risk, but they are not afraid of exploring, nor are they afraid of failure. In fact, they do not call it failure, they call it feedback.

Conclusion

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To conclude, when failure is experienced a permanent condition it is highly destructive and goes against everything that is noble in human nature. It works against us in school, in research, in business and in our personal lives. Today I challenge you to change your perception of the word, to cut it back to size, and to see the great learning potential that it hides within.

If we are engaged in anything meaningful, failure, like death and taxes, is guaranteed; any successful athlete, musician, scientist or business person will confirm it. What matters is what we do with it. Let’s not rob our children of the privilege of failure. Let’s teach them instead to confront it, to learn from it, and to aspire to greater heights. In this way they will look at failure as a learning tool; they will also better understand the failures of others, and be more willing to help out where they can.

Let’s unleash the power of failure!


If you liked this, you may be interested in Forget Failures,  a Marketing project done by John Cabot University students to increase students’ awareness about the importance of learning from failure.

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