Learning Through Failure

paper trailI think in life, it’s important to try to do things you might “fail” at. Whether it be trying a new personal skill (for me lately skiing) or a new idea at work.

I was reminded of this and how our culture doesn’t necessarily strike the right tone on this recently as my two boys debated a t-shirt.

My son Teddy (5th grader) was recently wearing a t-shirt with the caption “helping kids fail since 1998″. His 3rd grade brother Sammy tenderly observed how “stupid” that t-shirt was. A very sophisticated exchange ensued. Sam’s basic point was “I don’t fail” and “Why would you brag about failing?” Teddy got very animated in explaining the irony of the caption and how science works, but Sam was not going to be moved.

Setting aside the brotherly “love” involved, the boys were arguing a fundamental point both about how we view and run our lives and also how we work and lead.

There’s a lot written on learning through failing. I’d encourage you to explore dear friend and learning through failure expert Matt Hunt’s blog. I just wanted to hit on a few high level themes.

First, a little more context. Teddy is a 5th grader who enjoys science, technology and learning new things. He’s a Lego addict, builds simple computer games using “Scratch” (a cool open source game development tool from MIT), enjoys Minecraft…the whole deal. Part of his summer every year is attending a series of summer camps in those areas. One of our great local groups offering discovery based learning is called “Leonardo’s Basement” and it’s their slogan on the shirt. They are celebrating the beauty and joy of the discovery process. Tell Teddy what to do and he won’t, testing every boundary.

Sam is a grind it out, follow the rules (at school), very athletic kid. He also does very well in school. But since he was little has been risk averse. I don’t know if it’s a social thing (ie: not wanting to be seen failing), but it’s always been there. He’ll spend way more time getting something right than his brother, but isn’t going to put himself out there. He’ll grind it out in the box and finds it very comfortable there. Tell him what to do and he’ll do it. Exactly.

So I live with this classic divergence of mind sets. And it plays out in everything from the activities they engage in to how they spend their free time.

So where do you stand? Ask a few questions about yourself and your organization:

- Are you a risk taker personally?

- Can you keep things in perspective if they don’t go as planned?

- Are you resilient, pushing on when things get bumpy?

- Are you open to feedback, either from others or simply from the results of your efforts?

- Do you quickly adapt as you get input from others or the environment?

- How do you treat “failures” from team members and subordinates?

- Does your organization reward or punish “interesting” failures.

(Note: This is not a celebration of stupidity or making huge and obvious mistakes. Not my point. I’m talking about exploring new things that are not well understood. Like new ideas, markets, business models or technologies.)

I ask these as diagnostics on whether you are comfortable with the idea that we won’t get everything right. If you aren’t, I bet you are relatively under-achieving your personal or organizational potential. Frankly if we are getting everything right, then we aren’t trying hard enough. Like on the ski hill for me, if you never fall down you aren’t pushing enough boundaries.

Our culture can reinforce this. From an early age, much of school is set up to enforce rigid testing standards on our kids. Grades can often measure attainment of content knowledge (rote learning) while ignoring as or more important critical thinking skills and what I call “generative” thinking and work. Making actual stuff, whether it be a research paper, a robot or a work of art. For example, on the kids’ math homework, my view is if you’re getting everything right it’s too easy. And if all we’re doing is math problems and not going through some self-discovery process, we’re not focused on the right outcomes.

My observation as a consultant, leader and teacher is that learning is iterative. You have to try something a number of times to master it. And mastery can lead to novel approaches. For example, most artists tend to start as “tracers”, but once they master technique they can cut loose and invent new and novel approaches (see Picasso). Similarly, organizations have to learn and get better at things iteratively. If I improve continuously, I’m both more likely to succeed and to be able to sustain learning.

Remember to be true to yourself, but push boundaries. I’m NOT saying to risk your career on a half-thought out leap. I AM saying there are ways to experiment and make small, interesting bets that could grow. If they “fail”, then you’ve learned something. Similarly for organizations, I am talking about the idea of placing many small bets and rewarding both “winners” and “losers” in this process. If you capture the learning systematically, you’ll get better at systematic innovation.

So keep in mind:

- Often, the downside risk isn’t as big as you think it is.

- Rarely is something right the first time. Iteration matters greatly. (Think compound interest.)

- Learning comes through doing and doing means not being “right” all the time.

- Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

- In the right context, be sure to reward “failure” of the right kind.

As Samuel Beckett said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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4 Responses to “Learning Through Failure”

  • Thanks Phil! I love to see these questions debated with a diverse audience. The other side effect of “punishing” failure in school or in the office is that everyone is watching and adjusting their own behavior. Just as siblings are constantly learning from each other, Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory suggests that we continue this behavior into adulthood.

    “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
    ― Thomas A. Edison

  • I’m on Teddy’s side, not Sammy’s!!

    Failure means you’re challenging yourself, trying hard, pushing limits, testing ideas, etc. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying anything difficult. And that’s probably the worst failure of all. I think there’s a famous quote that says something to this extent as well!!

    I read about a concept of “failing better”… meaning each time you try something, you should be failing at higher levels. When you first begin to ride a bike, you’ll fail at staying upright. As you learn, you might fail at shifting into a proper gear before reaching an incline or hill. But this is a higher level of failure. You’re continuing to progress.

    That’s how I view business projects and personal projects as well, since obviously learning to ride a bicycle isn’t a major goal for most of us. I’m sort of rambling on here, but I think you’ll get the idea- Failure can equal progress, as long as you recognize and learn from mistakes!

    • Phil:

      Biron – I completely agree…but Teddy is “mini-me”. I tell me students and team to “fall forward” on things. We ever get it exactly right, but make interesting progress and you’ll incrementally make great strides.

      What I find fascinating in people if the amount of fear around being “wrong”. I think we’ve created such a test-based achievement culture that being interesting or creative isn’t rewarded in education and corporate life as much as it should be. At school it costs you grades and at work it risks performance review blowback. Some of our most important innovations have derived from interesting “mistakes” made by people pushing boundaries.

  • Couldn’t agree with you more Phil. Taken action when you know there is a high possibility of failure is a great way to prepare ones self to stay motivated and persevere. I believe we often learn more through our failures than we do our success. We failed dozens of times when learning to ride out bikes and with each mistake we learned to correct ourselves until we were successful. The same learning process can be applied to many different areas of our life; whether it be building a business, developing more effective relationships or getting into shape. Learning from our mistakes and failures helps us become better at what we do.

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