the Great Teacher.
"Ever tried. Ever failed.
No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." Samuel Beckett
4th key to learning.
key in learning? This is the fourth of a number of keys
that are meant to bring understanding about what
learning is and how leaning can be improved by
understanding the message of those keys. This key is
about how failure is not only necessary to learning, but
in itself embodies learning. This key explains the
function of failure in the learning process and how it
can and should be embraced rather than avoided.
All important learning comes from failure.
there is no failure there is no learning. If
things are easy to learn you are not really learning. In
his book "Beginners" Tom Vanderbilt explains:
is an essential part of learning. We tend to remember
the milestone achievements (for example, the day the
baby first began to walk) and forget about the many,
many falls that came first. Behind every highlight
reel there is a huge B-roll of mistakes.
In their book "Make it Stick" Brown, Roediger and
McDaniel have a lot to say about errors as follows:
"...in our Western culture, where
achievement is seen as an indicator of ability, many
learners view errors as failure and do what they can
to avoid committing them. The aversion to failure may
be reinforced by by instructors who labor under the
belief that when learners are allowed to make errors
its the errors that they will learn.
is a misguided impulse. When learners commit errors
and are given corrective feedback, the errors are not
learned. Even strategies that are highly likely to
result in errors, like asking someone to try and solve
a problem before being shown how to do it, produce
stronger learning and retention of the correct
information than more passive learning strategies,
provided there is corrective feedback. Moreover,
people who are taught that learning is a struggle that
often involves making errors will go on to exhibit a
greater propensity to tackle tough challenges and will
tend to see mistakes not as failures but as lessons
and turning points along the path to mastery. To see
the truth of this, look no further than the kid down
the hall who is deeply absorbed in working his avatar
up through the levels of an action game on this Xbox
game is an interesting example. The thing is that video
games are quite difficult even on the first level and
cannot be played without making errors and also anyone
starting a new level is likely to fail. Why then are
children not traumatized by making these errors and
failing? Well these errors and failures have no
disastrous consequences in the lives of the players.
They can return to them as often as they like and fail
or succeed there are no consequences other than in the
game itself. It seems to this site that the very reason
that children may be drawn to this type of low stakes
testing may be a desire to build some feeling of mastery
that they find lacking in education because it so often
avoids errors and failure. By giving learners no chance
to experience low stakes errors and low stakes failure
the current system of education may be depriving
learners of necessary feelings of mastery.
Although Brown, Roediger and McDaniel side
stepped actual failure in the first part of this in the
second part here they make quite clear their idea on
failure as follows:
fear of failure can poison learning by creating an
aversions to kinds of experimentation and risk taking
that characterize striving, or by diminishing
performance under pressure as in a test setting. In
the latter instance, students who who have a high fear
of making errors when taking tests may actually do
worse on the test because of their anxiety. Why? It
seems that a significant portion of their working
memory capacity is expended to monitor their
performance (How am I doing? Am I making mistakes?),
leaving less working memory capacity to available to
solve the problem supposed by the test. 'Working
memory' refers to the amount of information you can
hold in mind while working through a problem,
especially in the face of distraction. Everyone's
working memory is severely limited..."
terrors. In their book "Make it Stick" Brown,
Roediger and McDaniel then provide evidence for the
adverse effects of being afraid of mistakes and failure
explore this theory about how fear of failure reduces
test performance, sixth graders in France were given
very difficult anagram problems that none of them
could solve. After struggling unsuccessfully with the
problems, half of the kids received a ten-minute
lesson in which they were taught that difficulty is a
crucial part of learning, errors are natural and to be
expected, and practice helps, just as in learning to
ride a bicycle. The other kids were simply asked how
they had gone about trying to solve the anagrams. Then
both groups were given a difficult test whose results
provided a measure of working memory. The kids who had
been taught that errors are a natural part of learning
showed significantly better use of working memory than
did the others. These children did not expend their
working memory capacity in agonizing over the
difficulty of the task. The theory was further tested
in variations of the original study. The results
support the finding that difficulty can create
feelings of incompetence that engender anxiety,
which in turn disrupts learning, and that 'students do
better when given room to to struggle with
difficulties. In their book "Make it Stick"
Brown, Roediger and McDaniel then say the following:
studies point out that not all difficulties in
learning are desirable ones."
weak to become strong. Here they are referring
to the idea presented earlier in their book showing that
difficulties in both recall of knowledge and the
absorbing of new information can both greatly improve
future recall of such knowledge, a process known as
desirable difficulty. However they seem to be implying
here that this fear of testing is an anomaly or
exception to the desirable difficulty rule. This site
holds that this whole idea needs clarification. Consider
the ancient bit of wisdom: "That
which does not kill me makes me stronger."
While this is true for most people it is not true for
all people. This is because most people are sufficiently
strong to deal with something that nearly kills them and
become stronger for it. But what about the people that
can not deal with being nearly killed?
helplessness. The idea of learned helplessness
is that if an animal or person is put in a situation
where the find they cannot escape or are unable to
prevent something painful happening to them they will
learn that they are helpless and stop trying to do
anything about their situation.
self-determination. Learned self-determination
is kind of the opposite of or the antidote for
helplessness. Self-determination in its simplest form
can be created the opposite way helplessness is created
by simply showing the animal or person that their life
experiences show that they can always do something to
improve their situation. You put learners in situations
that are difficult but not so difficult they cannot
escape or improve their situation. You gradually make
the difficulty incrementally greater with each trial
while they manage to improve their situation each time
so that they become increasingly more confident and
competent. If they fail you might leave the difficulty
where it is until they find their way through it. The
point is that mastery and competence improves with each
step through the incremental difficulties and thus the
choices the trainer or teacher provides. Ultimately you
get a person or animal that will never stop trying.
are learners afraid of tests? This site
suspects that the reason we are afraid of tests is that
we have rarely experienced tests where the stakes of the
test are low or minimal. On top of this when we enter
school we we are quickly taught that mistakes are bad
and that we should be afraid to make them and that
failure is like the end of the world. This is not just
the fault of schools and teachers though. It is heavily
embedded in every aspect of socialization in Western
society. In the experiment above the learners were freed
(temporarily) from this fear in a ten-minute lesson so
it clearly does not need to be there. See the choices
page for more on this.
and fear mongering. We are now living in a
world where parents are so afraid for their children
that they tend to do far to much for their children in
order to protect them from dangers. Thus their children
have learned sometimes to be helpless and often never to
achieve any kind of mastery or achieve any feelings of
competence. These things can only come about by
overcoming real world obstacles and not having them
removed from their path. Children are both over
protected and made to feel afraid of everything not he
least of which are mistakes and failure.
desirable difficulties become undesirable. To
return to our original point all difficulties are
desirable but only if we can overcome them or at least
believe that we can. The problem is that western society
has made it very difficult to believe this and so it
sometimes does not work. A few pages on in their book
"Make it Stick" Brown, Roediger and McDaniel say:
and Robert Bjork, who coined the phrase 'desirable
difficulty' write that difficulties are desirable
because 'they trigger encoding and retrieval processes
that support learning, comprehension and remembering.
If, however, the learner does not have the background
knowledge or skills to respond to them successfully,
they become undesirable difficulties.'"
impediments that you cannot overcome are not
desirable. Outlining a lesson in a sequence different
from the one in the textbook is not a desirable
difficulty for learners who lack the reading skills or
language fluency required to hold a train of thought
long enough to reconcile the discrepancy.If your
textbook is written in Lithuanian and you don't know
the language, this hardly represents a desirable
difficulty. To be desirable, a difficulty must be
something learners can overcome through increased
without fear. What we need is a world where we
can face small low stakes difficulties, or obstacles at
a very young age. We need a world where we can make
small low stakes mistakes, or commit small low stakes
errors at a very young age. We need a world where we can
fail in small low stakes ways at a very young age. We
need a world where we can take risks in small low stakes
ways at a very young age. These difficulties and stakes
should be allowed to increase with competence and earned
trust. The result will be less fear, less failure, less
mistakes and much more resilient adults.
to see failure.
knowledge. Almost all learning comes from
negative knowledge, but we prefer to view it and
understand it as positive knowledge. How do you know
that a dog is a dog? Children learn this by initially
associating the word dog with a few objects. Children
then automatically generalize this to many other objects
by virtue of their similarity. Having done this the
child has not learned much. Real learning comes as
he/she gradually eliminates all those objects that are
not dogs from his understanding of what is a dog. Real
learning is taking a few observations, creating a
conjectural hypothesis about those observations, and
then testing the conjecture to find and eliminate that
which is incorrect, the errors.
is change and failure provides us with the feedback
necessitating change. The idea of feedback comes from
cybernetics. In cybernetics a system is regulated by
feedback. We can consider success and failure, right and
wrong, as indicators in the feedback system of learning.
If we are wrong or we fail, the indication is we must
stop what we are doing and do something else. If we are
right or successful the indication is that we can just
keep on doing what we are doing. Success does not
require change. Success merely corroborates that our
action is correct, action based on information we have
already learned in the past.
is no failure. Only feedback." Robert Allen
are small failures. Mistakes can weigh us down. Or
mistakes can pave the road to achievement. In his book
"Failing Forward" John C. Maxwell gives us an an
acronym for mistakes. This acronym provides a way of
perceiving mistakes as sign posts on the way to
achievement. He says mistakes are:
"The person who doesn't make mistakes
is unlikely to make anything." Paul Arden
are a discovery resource.
make no mistakes we may be avoiding a very important
resource for discovery. The new, the unlooked for, often
may never come into existence if we eliminate all
errors. Some of the world's most important discoveries
were the result of error. In their book
"The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph
Keyes put it as follows:
"Trying to minimize or avoid slipups could
have stifled some very awfully important
innovations. So-called accidents have been wholly or
partly responsible for products such as Gore-Tex,
Nylon, Teflon, Silly Putty, penicillin, shatterproof
glass and the microwave oven."
It's wrong to be right most of the time!
the time you do not need to be right. Every time you are
right, you do not learn anything new. You simply sail
along blithely doing the things you have learned in the
past. Worse than this, every time you are right you seem
to verify what you know and become more certain about
it. When you continually prove that you are right in
this fashion you tend to become more rigid, until it's
like you are set in concrete. You become opinionated,
smug and unable to change.
"Those who dare to fail miserably can
achieve greatly." Robert F. Kennedy
"No man ever became great or good except
through many and great mistakes." Wi
am E. Gladstone English Prime Minister.
It's right to be wrong most of the time!
Most of the time you need to be wrong so you
can learn and be comfortable with being wrong. Being
wrong is an opportunity for change. Being wrong gives
you two very important types of information. First it
tells you what does not work and where that occurs.
Secondly it give you clues as to how it might be done
better or improved. Armed with this information you
are in a position to guess how it might be done better
and thus cause a change in your knowledge (learning) and
change in how you view the world (perception).
are no mistakes or failures, only lessons." Denis
"Don't be afraid to make a mistake. But
make sure you don't make the same mistake twice."
The myths and lies concerning success
tells you that they have always been successful is
either lying or their life is so fragile that it will
collapse in the event of any setback. When we see an
article about a successful person and there is no
mention of failures we know we are looking at a résumé
where the failures have been left out or covered up and
the successes have been highlighted. It is a bit of a
paradox that only failure can prepare us for dealing
with failure in the future. The more unbroken success we
have the more afraid we become of failing. This is not
just true of people, businesses and organizations of any
sort become more afraid of failure the more successful
greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising
every time we fall." Confucius
The tangled web of engagement in life.
"The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph
Keyes tell us that success and failure are two sides of
the same coin. Success sets us up to fail and failure
sets us up to succeed. Success and failure are really
more similar than they are different. They are not
always easy to tell apart but we should not be concerned
with doing so. It is actually counter productive
to try to distinguish one from the other. Farson and
Keyes put it like this:
most lives, successes and failures are as tangled as
fishing line after a bad cast. Failure begets success
followed by failure and success once again. When we
look back on our lives the parts that seemed
triumphant can pale into insignificance, while
episodes that appeared trivial at the time now look
crucial. Successes, we see in hindsight, made us
complacent, while our setbacks pushed us."
is never permanent, and failure is never final."
"The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph
Keyes tell us that identifying work and people as being
successes or failures provides no help to economies that
must adapt quickly, as is the case today:
"Using success and failure as a
yardstick limits our ability to create, innovate
and take risks, which is the only way to stay
afloat in the emerging economy."
Set up to fail by
us up to fail in many ways. Some of these ways are
caution, guilt, the loss of friends and inability
to be creative.
Success causes us to become
main way success sets us up to fail is that it
makes us less and less able to take risks. When
you are not yet successful you have little to
lose and so taking risks comes easy. But when
you have a big house, a successful company, a
position of power and prestige, a beautiful
wife, all the cars and food you might ever want,
well then you just have to stop and think before
you take a risk. Indeed, you tend to play it
safe. Why? Well, it just seems crazy to put all
these wonderful things you have at risk.
Unfortunately, our health, our wealth, our
feelings of accomplishment all depend on change
and rebirth all of which depend on taking risks.
All these things can become so successful that
they become paralyzed by an inability to take
risks. Likewise, people who are unable to take
risks in their personal lives are just as dead
or failed as those big companies. In their book "The
Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes put it like this:
us of motivation to make needed changes.
Posttriumph, we have more to protect. That in
turn makes it harder to to sustain success.
It's as hard or harder to remain successful as
it is to succeed in the first place. Ask any
coach. Just as weight can be more difficult to
keep off than take off, prominent figures of
all kinds discover that getting to the top is
easier than staying there.
of success too often is a loss of focus and
daring. The tendency is to try to protect
one's accomplishments by shifting into cruise
control. This syndrome gets played out
repeatedly in the television industry. One
network climbs to the top, begins to play it
safe, repeats what worked in the past, slips
behind, then gives way to a competitor on the
bottom who's taking creative chances because
it has no reason not to."
Successes make us complacent.
fail because they become complacent. When
everything is going well we start to feel
invincible. Everybody is telling us how
great we are such that we begin to feel we
should not have to make much effort or work
hard. We can become obsessed with what others
think of us and try to live up to that image. We
may even come to believe ourselves, that we do
not have to work hard and therefore stop giving
any but the most minimal effort. Thus we become
ripe for someone really working hard to outdo
us. This happens to people, but more readily it
happens to businesses and organizations.
Success can make us bored.
us susceptible to to boredom. Boredom in turn in
turn makes it almost inevitable that we will
fail. In their book
"The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes put it
to have to accommodate employees who find
success boring by finding ways to keep their
action level up. ...Even as our rational brain
says avoid problems, our nervous system begs
to differ. More complications, it pleads.
Please! No problems mean no challenges, too
little stimulation. I want to be more aroused
not less! That's why our life can feel more
meaningful when things are not going well than
when they are."
Success causes us to doubt our
relations with others.
When we become
successful we cannot help but wonder if people
are our friends just because we have become
rich, powerful or a celebrity. The most
successful people in the world are often
complete failures in their friendships. How
many rock stars and actors become drug addicts
or alcoholics or even commit suicide? Success
in the eyes of the world is no guarantee of a
successful marriage, success with friends, or
success of any kind as a person. Celebrities
are for the most part complete failures as
happy contented people.
Success makes us feel fake or
success come too quickly with too little
effort it tends to feel fake. Many of those
who are adulated by millions of fans like
actors and musicians must feel fake and
guilty. Julie Cristie for instance never felt
she deserved to be successful. Maria Shriver
also thought she was a failure despite having
married Arnold Schwarzenegger. In their book
Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes tell as story
about James Autry who didn't feel he deserved
to be the successful CEO of The Meredith
Magazine group. The story in part is as
lunch with a friend who was the vice
president of of one of the country's largest
companies. Midway through the lunch, his
friend asked abruptly, 'Do you ever get the
feeling that one day they are going to come
into your office and say, 'Okay, Autry, we
found out about you?' 'Yes yes,' Autry
replied without hesitating. He told his
friend that he felt that way often. And him?
The friend nodded. They both laughed. 'It's
as if we are still little boys playing with
the big boys,' Autry friend said 'We don't
really belong here do we?' 'Of course not'
agreed Autry 'In the big office with the big
salary and the perks? Of course not. That's
for the big boys.' 'And do you know what
this tells us?' the friend continued. There
are no big boys, only us little boys.'"
though we remain successful in the eyes of
others we can feel like failures. In our own
eyes we are failures. Surely it's better to be
a failure in the eyes of others than in our
own eyes. The more we feel like failures the
more likely it is that others will see us as
failures and so we fail.
Innovation is something new and promoting and
manufacturing something new means taking a
chance. It means you are risking what you
already have to have something else. It is well
known in company circles that the more
successful a company gets the more difficult it
becomes for those companies either to innovate
at all or to profit from the the innovations
Success crushes and hobbles
companies have missed out on innovations over
and over again. Partly they are blind to the
possibility of new innovation. They are
complacent, they may not see it as superseding
their product. They see trying something new
as a risk that might fail. But even if they
see the opportunity and know the risk is small
compared to the risk of doing noting, they
would still rather crush the new innovation
than participate in the change while they are
still successful. IBM is a classic case of
almost allowing themselves to go out of
business before they finally were able to
implement a new innovative product. IBM's
profits and successes made everyone feel they
must be doing everything right so why would
they change anything.
Xerox company had the most creative research
and development team that has ever existed and
yet the Xerox company never implemented any of
the great innovations that were produced
there. They passed them along and sold them
off, all because they were at the time so
successful that they were unwilling to change.
Their team at the Palo Alto Research center
(PARC) developed the technology that made
personal computers possible. They developed
the icon studded interface that eventually
became the familiar graphic interface of the
Mac and then Windows. They developed the laser
printer technology that went to
Hewlett-Packard. They developed desktop
publishing which two of their people left with
to start Adobe. Jim Clark used research he did
at PARC on 3D graphic imaging to create
Silicon Graphics. Another researcher left with
word processing technology that became Word at
Microsoft. The computer mouse was also first
developed at PARC. As Farson and Keyes say:
itself a winning hand - several winning
hands - and then threw them in because it
was reluctant to pursue innovations outside
its core business. ...Xerox is a classic
example of a business that was too
Allen movie director and comedian said.
"If you don't fail now and again, it's a
sign you're playing it safe."
Set up to succeed by failure.
us up to succeed in many ways.
you fail there is often a kind of relief. What
happens when you fail, is never as bad as the
anxiety you feel just before you fail. The fear
seems to ebb away and a calm descends on you.
This release can give us the courage to rise up
and try again. As long as we also occasionally
have a few successes the discovery that failure
is not the end of the world can allow us to try
again with less fear.
Failure allows us to take
"Being young is greatly overestimated... Any
failure seems so total. Later on you realize
you can have another go." Mary
Learning from failure.
realization that we can and should learn from
failure is perhaps the most critical step for
effective learning. We need to become able to
see that every time we fail, we are presented
with an opportunity to learn, and one that we
do not get when we are successful. We can come
to view failure as an advantage rather than
something crushing or disabling.
Ford said, "Failure is only the
opportunity to begin again more
Littlewood, a theatre director said, "If
we don't get lost we will never find a new
Failures can make us
leaders of industry (big business people) have
to be resilient. How often do we here of some
big businessman, who fails and is declared
bankrupt, only to read in some magazine a few
years later, he is swaggering around with his
pockets full of money again? Many of us would
like to believe that there is some scam going
on, and that he did not lose all his money at
all. But the truth is probably that he was
resilient and just bounced back. He did lose
all his money, but the failure did not faze
him. He just started again and made the money
back. Entrepreneurs are very much this kind of
person. If they fail in one venture, they
simply start another venture or sometimes the
same venture with a new twist. Often
entrepreneurs fail many times before they
Yiddish call it chutzpah. Some call it moxie,
but whatever you call it, it is the courage to
try again. It is fearlessness in facing danger
and taking risks. It is the life enhancing
ability to take a chance, not just with
yourself but a chance that will have a huge
impact on others. The entrepreneur in David
"The Entrepreneurial Life" points out
that the things we are afraid of are often
unworthy of fear, when compared with the
really important concerns of life:
"What can the bank do to me if I don't pay
them? They can't harm me physically. They
can't hold my children to ransom. They can't
Lincoln said, "My great concern is
not whether you have failed, but whether you
are content with your failure."
said, "I haven't failed, I've
had 10,000 ideas that didn't work."
Failures can make our
on the way to eventual success can come to be
associated with with success enabling us to
come to enjoy failure as part of a more
important and more complete success. There is
a big difference between a success where we
succeeded easily, and one where we have
overcome obstacles and setbacks. This is
especially so where we have failed along the
way, but still went on to succeed. Every time
we are able to push our way past failure to
eventually succeed, it becomes easier and
easier. This goes on until finally an
association is forged between success and
failure, allowing us to feel pleasure in the
failures. More importantly, the overcoming of
these setbacks and failures can make us feel
much better about the success. We can feel it
is hard won and truly deserved.
Honda of Honda cars said, "Success
is 99 percent failure."
Too quick to
"The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson
and Ralph Keyes point out, that present day
societies tend to decide whether someone or
something is a success or failure, and label
them in such a way that changing that label
becomes very difficult. They said:
too quick to call someone or something a success or a
failure when the jury is out (which is true in most
cases). These two are simply not easy to sort out,
untangle, tell apart. All they are is labels we hang
on complex events trying to simplify them. What we
usually end up doing is oversimplifying them. When we
win and when we lose can be utterly dependent on the
circumstances, timing, the economy, even shifts in
Microsoft was a flourishing company, Mary Gates, Bill's
mother, thought of Bill as a failure because he dropped
out of Harvard. Many successful people who dropped out
of school to start up a business probably also had
mothers who thought they were failures. When vice
presidential candidate Edmund Muskie cried because his
wife was being attacked by the press he was branded as a
failure. But when Bob Hawk (Australian Prime Minister)
cried on TV about the fact that his son was a drug
addict, the Australian people thought it was wonderful
that he could express his feelings in such a human way.
He continued to be seen as a success. Al Gore lost his
campaign because he was too wooden on TV, because he
couldn't express his emotions. He was seen as a failure.
It's all a matter of timing, and differences or change
in public perception.
similarities of success and failure, winning and
and failures are both very intense emotional
experiences. We may weep tears of joy or tears of pain
or feel like crying during either success or failure. In
"The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph
Keyes give the following perspectives on winning and
lose, participating in athletic contests takes them to
levels of passion enjoyed by few. That level grows out
of striving to win, but is every bit as dependent on
the danger of loss. ...Those who study gamblers are
usually surprised to discover how indifferent they are
to loss. Gamblers themselves are fond of saying that
the next best thing to winning is losing. Some even
think there's more to be said for the latter. Losing
demands more valor, more character, they say" [This is true of any kind of
contest where people strive to be the
best, political, creative or athletic.] "The
risk of failure is far more captivating than success
in the bag"
man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several
thousand things that won't work." Thomas
Failure and success, winning and losing are
all very intense experiences that exist on a plane
beyond labels of good or bad. Farson and Keyes explain
it like this:
peak levels of intensity, emotions we consider
positive or negative are hard to tell apart. Tears of
joy differ little from ones of grief. The moans of a
couple making love resemble those of wounded soldiers.
Both pain and pleasure are aroused in the same center
of our brains. The body itself can't distinguish
strong feelings of any kind - anger, love, fear,
excitement - until the mind tells it which is which.
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi did a study of people in many
walks of life, and found that people tended to enter a
state of elevated consciousness, when their abilities
were just closely matched by the challenges confronting
them. This state, he found, was closely associated with
feelings of pleasure and happiness. If the challenges
were too great, the people would become anxious and
unable to enter this elevated state, and if the
challenges were insufficient, they would become bored
and also unable to enter the state. He called the state
'flow' because when in the state their actions tended to
be at the optimum of functionality and yet seemed to
almost effortlessly flow. Athletes call this state being
in the zone. He found people could become so absorbed in
performing a task that they became oblivious to winning
or losing failing or succeeding. The joy, the feelings
of accomplishment, came from being so fully engaged in
the task. It seemed to Mihalyi that everything became
peripheral to functioning at this optimum level of
performance. The more a person entered this state the
less anxious or bored they became, and thus were able to
face greater and greater challenges.
takers, the people who are prepared to fail, and
people who love to fail.
do things, are people who take risks. They have to be
able to get up again, and try again after they have
failed. They do not think failure is the opposite of
success. They believe complacency is. Some of these
people not only are prepared to fail, but are actually
at their best when facing a crisis. Mayor Rudy Giuliani
display little in the way of leadership skills till the
advent of the crisis of the World Trade Center towers.
Suddenly he became a master of crisis management. He was
in his element. He is not alone in being a rising star
in time of crisis. Winston Churchill rose, from an
almost failed life, to inspire Britain as prime minister
during the second world war. Farson and Keyes add the
consider setbacks a badge of honor, unmistakable proof
that they're bold risk takers. Far from hiding their
blunders, they brag about them."
these risk takers and risk lovers are the scientists who
make breakthroughs; the entrepreneurs that shape our
business world, and the inventers/technologists that
change how we live. Many, perhaps all of them, have had
setbacks, false starts and complete failures. They have
been wrong far more often than they have been right. It
is no coincidence that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are
among those quoted above.
W. Gardener American educator said. "One of the
reasons mature people stop learning is that they
become less and less willing to risk failure."
is to risk appearing a fool,
To cry is to risk appearing sentimental and soft,
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To show up and expose your feelings is to risk exposing
your inherent self,
To place your ideas, your dreams, your desires before
people is to risk their loss,
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To show strength is to risk showing weakness,
To do is to risk failure.
The greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing,
The person who risks nothing gets nothing, has nothing,
He may avoid suffering, pain, sorrow, but he does not
live, he does not love,
He has sold, forfeited freedom, integrity,
He is a slave, chained by safety, locked away by fear,
Because, only a person who is willing to risk not
knowing the result is free.
"Experience Inc." Joseph and Suzy Fucini explain
why older people may have more of what it takes to be an
entrepreneur as follows:
the time he or she has reached mid-life, the average
person has traveled through the peaks and valleys that
mark most career paths. This gives the entrepreneur an
overview that makes it possible to see beyond
temporary setbacks, leaving him or her better equipped
to bounce back from any reversals encountered when
starting a business. Because of this resiliency, the
older entrepreneur is often able to turn a mistake
into a learning experience."
"How To Get Ideas" Jack Foster tells the story of
a friend of his who was opening an office for a major
national advertising agency in Los Angeles. When asked
how he was going to choose from hundreds of applicants
must confess I am partial to people who have failed.
People who have failed know that failure's never
permanent. Too often people who haven't failed at
anything think failure's a disaster and so they're
afraid to take chances. And because they've never
failed, they think they know it all. I hate
know-it-alls. Besides, you're always getting rejected
in this business. That's just the way it is. I want
people who I know will spring back."
experience can provide older people with a better
perspective on failure because they have lived through
failure, youth also provides a new perspective on
failure today. In their book "The
Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes point out
that the current generation growing up is being greatly
influenced by social changes in the way failure is
any number of reasons, younger cohorts the prospect of
going belly up less daunting than their predecessors
did. Partly it's simply they have less to lose by
taking chances. Partly it's because they have known
only affluence (the Depression to them is the subject
of black-and-white documentaries on public
television). It's also due to an attitude shift,
however. These new workers realize - as a few
thoughtful people always have - that pursuing success
is like chasing the horizon, and that failure is an
integral part of an interesting life.
Why we fail.
fail for many reasons. We can fail because we are wrong,
where the theories that we hold are disconfirmed by
subsequent events. If this happens we have an
opportunity to form new conjecture or to revise and
improve our understanding of reality. We may fail
because we do not have sufficient skill. If we fail
because we have insufficient skill, we have an
opportunity to learn what we did wrong and improve our
skill. Indeed the whole business of learning a skill is
one of continual failure until the relevant skill is
learned sufficiently well. Even then we fail. We can
also fail because some unforeseen event has occurred.
Our anticipation and skills might have been sufficient
but we did not take everything into account. We did not
have all the information. But failure can actually
provide the information we did not have before. We have
learned from the failure and our ability to predict has
increased and the likelihood of not failing next time
honestly think it is better to be a failure at
something you love than to be a success at something
you hate." George Burns
deliver me from the person who never makes a mistake,
and also from the person who makes the same mistake
twice." William James Mayo American Surgeon,
Founder of Mayo Clinic.
be nice if every time we made a mistake we learned from
it and never made the same mistake again. Alas, most of
us tend to make many mistakes, over and over, till we
finally learn, and in some cases we never do. The fact
is we each develop a set of behaviors for dealing with
life. For some of us this means behaviors that are
counter productive, which lead us to make the same
mistakes again. John C. Maxwell calls this state of
being, the failure freeway. He illustrates both the
difficulty in trying to exit this freeway, and how to do
it, with the words of Portia Nelson called
"Autobiography in five short chapters":
1. I walk down the street. There is a deep hole
in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless. It
isn't my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
2. I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in
the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place, but it isn't my
fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
3. I walk down the same street. There is a deep
hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall
in. It's a habit. I am helpless. My eyes are open. I
know where I am. It's my fault. I get out immediately.
4. I walk down the same street. There is a deep
hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
5. I walk down the another street.
in a sense the highway to success, as each discovery
of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what
is true." Poet John Keats
The Optimist and the Pessimist.
How we see
the world is important, because it largely determines
what it is that we learn. The pessimist sees the
negative and thus can only learn about the negative. The
optimist sees the positive and thus can learn about the
positive. For the optimist the glass is half full and
for the pessimist it is half empty.
pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an
optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
Although this site completely arbores pseudoscience such
as is presented in the book "The Secret", there is often
some glimmer of wisdom hidden in such books. For
instance the words of John Assaraf perhaps best
encapsulate the problem for the pessimist as follows:
the problem. Most people are thinking about what they
don't want, and they're wondering why it shows up over
and over again."
is that there are very logical reasons why optimism will
help you to be successful and why pessimism will not
help you to be a success. This was made clear by the
sociologist Robert Merton in his book
"Social Theory and Social Structure" when talking
about stereotyping as follows:
stereotypes are not entirely removed from reality:
like most stereotypes, they are inflexible
exaggerations of actual tendencies or attributes. But
in the course of social conflict, they become
self-confirming stereotypes as sociologists shut
themselves off from experience, that might force them
to be modified. Sociologists of each camp develop
highly selective perceptions of what is going on in
the other. Each camp sees in the work of the other
primarily what the hostile stereotype has alerted it
to see, and it then promptly takes an occasional
remark as an abiding philosophy, an emphasis as total
commitment. In this process, each group of
sociologists becomes less and less motivated to study
the work of the other, since it is patently without
likely that this process has a very wide and general
application to all opposing camps and opposing ideas so
as to become a general principle of human behavior. It
is very easy to change the above argument so it is about
optimists and pessimists. "But in the course of
social conflict, the two groups become self-confirming
stereotypes as each shuts themselves off from
experience, that might force them to be modified.
Optimists and pessimists each develop highly selective
perceptions of what is going on in the world. Each one
sees in the perception of the other a craziness that
their inner model of reality cannot comprehend. Both
the optimist and the pessimist see in the word view of
the other what their hostile stereotype has alerted
them to see. The fact is the pessimist sees endless
confirming instances of why he should be pessimistic
and the optimist sees endless instances that verify
his position. In this process the pessimist and the
optimist become less and less able to see the world as
the other does, because it is patently without truth."
then you might say the optimist and the pessimist are
equally deluded because neither can see the point of
view of the other. This is not so, for by confining
their individual perception of the world view they are
also creating such a view for themselves, by what they
are learning. The optimist does not learn to fear
failure because he knows that it is just a setback on
the way to to success, an opportunity to learn how to
succeed. The optimist is looking at how much he has
acquired and how much is yet to be gained.
pessimist's world is biased, concentrating on horrors,
with thousands of people hopelessly afflicted, with
imminent terrorist attacks, with disease epidemics ready
to strike, natural disasters ever present, chronic lack
of money and persistent lack of health. They are so busy
worrying about what is not available or what they do not
seem able to get, that they miss the window of
opportunity. The opportunities are there, they come
along all the time. But the pessimists are so focused on
avoiding pain and being safe, that they are unable to
seize the moment and embrace the risks involved in being
successful, even if they were able to see the
opportunities. The pessimist is looking at what he
doesn't have and can't get.
is so wretched or foolish as to anticipate
misfortunes. What madness is it to be expecting evil
before it comes." Seneca 4 B.C. - 65 A.D.
optimist's world is filled with wonders, with good
things anticipated to eventuate in the world. The
optimist expects a world full of miraculous escapes, of
people helping others, of deserved success stories,
where good luck and effort prevails. They see the world
situation as improving, becoming more aesthetic and
has its good and bad elements. We tend to equate
optimism with positive thinking and there are in fact
three sorts of positive thinking.
is the type positive thinking that perceives the world
as being okay all the time regardless of whether it is
or is not okay. This is delusional positive thinking
which is usually not very helpful.
is the type of positive thinking where people can see
clearly that things are not okay when they are not,
but who hold firmly to the belief that things will get
better and that they will get better because they
believe it will get better. This is a type of
pseudoscience come mystical gobble-gook that can lead
people into delusionary activities. This is a kind of
positive thinking which can help in giving us hope,
but the change seems to be left up to a benign fate or
a mystical influence of the universe.
is the type of positive thinking where people can see
clearly that things are not okay when they are not,
but where it is believed that things can be improved
if they or others take action, make an effort, and
work toward a goal of improving them. This mindset
only promotes the belief that things can be changed
for the better by people through effort.
endorses only this third type of positive thinking, and
this is what we understand real optimism to be.
Optimists see every hardship, every failure as a
challenge. They see other people as potentially
virtuous, when they are not virtuous, because they
believe such people can be helped through effort to
become virtuous. They see a testament to what is
possible to improve, in the skills that they have
developed; They see their health as a tribute to what
they have done to improve it; More importantly they see
setbacks, mistakes and failures, as mere obstacles
necessary to be overcome by effort to achieve success.
The world for them is usually a good and happy place,
and if it is not, this serves as an opportunity to make
being constantly aware of the potential for good things
around them, see all the opportunities to be successful.
The opportunities are there. Opportunities come along
all the time, and the optimists are so sensitive to
them, that they stand out in their perception in sharp
and clear contrast, almost as if they were being given a
sign. Not only that, but they have such confidence in
their own ability to eventually achieve success through
hard work, that they revel in taking those risks needed
for success. This enables them to continue on despite
setbacks and failure.
optimist may see a light where there is none, but why
must the pessimist always run to blow it out?" Michel
de Saint Pierre
problem with failure and being wrong is that they embody
a lack of success, and success is necessary to give us
the confidence we need in being able to fulfill our own
needs. Not only that, but failure in most cultures is
usually experienced as pain or punishment. Thus the
expectation of failure leads to avoidance behavior.
Instead of learning how to predict and change the world,
non adventuresome people learn not to even try to
predict or change the world. So on the one hand, we are
actually learning much more from our failures than from
our successes, but on the other hand failure can lead us
away from, or stifle our ability to learn in the future.
It is a
mistake to suppose that men succeed through success;
they much oftener succeed through failures. Precept,
study, advice, and example could never have taught
them so well as failure has done." Author
failure is a man who has blundered, but is not able
to cash in on the experience." Elbert
The answer to this catch 22 is to take
failure and success and manage them so that we get the
maximum benefit in learning from each.
The effort of doing must result in success
or failure in any human endeavor. What we know is
this; when we fail we learn, but it is success that
motivates us to continue trying. So both failure and
success are truly necessary to learning. What is
needed is a balance between success and failure.
in doing is learning. Success motivates us to
try and do.
The first thing to note in trying to manage
failure is that the number of failures is more
damaging to learning than the amount or degree of
failure. In other words a lot of little failures are
more likely to stifle learning than one big failure.
Why? Because a lot of small failures means a lack of
success. If this happens to us, we begin to experience
not trying as a kind of substituted reward or negative
reinforcement that protects us from the pain of
failing. The result is less and less trying.
number of failures is more damaging than the
degree of failure.
lot of small successes are more important than
the degree of success.
Similarly a lot of small successes will
help promote more learning and confidence in
learning than one big success. Every time we succeed
we are rewarded by the intrinsic rewards that
accompany accomplishment, achievement, etc. Small
successes have the advantage in that they are easy
to produce. We can therefore produce small successes
more frequently, because the performance skills
needed, are easier to duplicate and quicker to
learn. The fact is what we all need is the
experience of success, a success so obvious that we
know we have succeeded without needing to be told.
up tasks or goals into easily manageable ones.
A task or a goal is something we are
trying to do, but it can be expediently broken up
into sub tasks or sub goals. Every one of these sub
tasks or sub goals provides us with intrinsic reward
whenever we accomplish it. If what people want
accomplish seems too daunting, they should break it
in smaller units keeping in sight what they want to
do. In this way they will be more likely to be
successful in accomplishment.
It must be understood however, that the
idea is not to break tasks or goals into such small
units that failure is impossible. No real learning
takes place unless you are willing to fail. The
whole idea in building up confidence in ability to
accomplish things, is so that you can reach the
point of being able to take a risk. You must reach
the point where being wrong is perceived as being
useful. It becomes a way of knowing how not to do
something. It should become a way of discovering in
yourself an increasingly better and more perfect
performance. If we are to do anything important, we
must be willing to risk being laughed at, ridiculed
or being just plain wrong.
and failure the negative and the positive
Success and failure are interrelated.
Though we need to learn to experience failure as a
positive benefit, it is, none the less, very painful
for most of us. Once we get into a cycle of
rewarding ourselves for not trying, the possibility
of doing anything becomes remote, so that the
ability to learn atrophies. This fear of failure can
drag us into a downward spiral, where we try to do
only those things that seem easily achievable and
gradually try even less and less of these. On the
other hand, a number of small successes give us
confidence in our ability to accomplish, so that we
increasingly try more and more difficult tasks and
goals for ourselves. Eventually we reach the point
where we can fail but continue on till we succeed.
If we do this often enough failure rightly becomes
part of the process associated with success,
accomplishment, and the intrinsic rewards that
failure is an act of judgment.
The management of these two things,
success and failure is then a matter of judgment. If
you feel that you want to do something, you should
ask yourself, "Will I be able to get up and try
again if I fail?" If not, you may need to break up
what you want to do into smaller units that can more
easily be accomplished. If the answer is yes
however, then go for it with exhilaration. The whole
experience, whether you fail or not, will teach you
a great deal.
is the path of least persistence.
"Every calamity is a spur and valuable
Bad times have a scientific value. These are
occasions a good learner would not miss." Ralph
"Great things are done by a series of small things
brought together." Vincent Van Gogh
fails like success because we don't learn from it. We
learn only from failure." Kenneth Boulding
and the fear of failure.
Ok, we all
fear failure because our competitive societies are
currently structured towards winning. We internalize
this apprehension when we are young from our parents,
from our schools and the media. It is drilled into us.
It is therefore difficult to shake off, but to learn
effectively, we must do so.
of success as failure to try or to even start.
do we fear to fail, but many of us also fear to succeed.
If we are afraid to succeed it leads to staying with
what is normal, with what is expected. Some people seem
to just huddle in a corner hoping the world will not
notice them too much and pass them by. They have their 9
to 5 job and they complain about it, but they do nothing
about changing this rut.
reason we fear success is because success proclaims to
ourselves and others that we are capable enough to
accept responsibility. Success not only demonstrates
that we have accomplished things, but also that we bear
responsible for our own and other's circumstances. The
more we succeed the more we have to direct our own way
through life. Not only can we no longer look to others
for direction, but now others begin to look to us for
direction. We must now make decisions, and if we falter
we are to blame. We cannot blame somebody else. We
become not only responsible for our own failures but
often responsible for the failures of others. Success
can be a heavy burden, that many can intuit the
consequences of, and are thus afraid of.
also feared because we fear loss of support. The more
successful we are, the less we can call on others for
support. Some people are only too willing to help you
when you are down, to listen to your woes, or give you a
hand with encouragement. When you are up, you cannot
expect such a helping hand or encouragement. Friends are
much more likely to help you move to a smaller house
than to a bigger one. Success also seems to lead to
social failure, where old friendships become difficult
to maintain, and new friendships are difficult to build
or be sure of. Like children coming of age, success
forces those who attain it to leave the nest, and fly
unaided. Money, fame and even accomplishment, can
promote jealousy and resentment, because people tend to
view another's gain as their loss.
reason that people fear success is that they are
unprepared to deal with it. Success basically tends to
lead to the inability of being able to cope with
success. Society asks us to enter the race but it does
not allow us all to be winners. Society is structured to
have few successes and many failures. Those who fail are
encouraged by society to envy those who succeed.
failure of success.
have people reached the pinnacle of success only to find
that it does not live up to expectations. Many people in
all walks of life have difficulty coping with success,
especially where this entails large lifestyle changes.
Those who embrace creativity generally seem to cope
better with success than others. Those who become famous
quickly are most at risk. Lottery winners, actors,
musicians, comedians and performers of all sorts who
suddenly rise to wealth and fame are in the high risk
success of failure.
the important part of success is the feeling of
accomplishment the it engenders. This is primarily a
motivator. Feelings of accomplishment are what motivate
us to risk failure. Success is nothing in itself but
simply a demonstration that we have learned something.
The function of success is to provide us with the
feeling of accomplishment or achievement that is our
reward for having learned, changed and sometimes having
changed the world. Failure at being successful is just
another kind of learning experience that should help us
to be better at achieving success, provided we are only
willing to try to learn from that experience.
you win and sometimes you learn." Robert
The entropy spiral.
it, if we fear success and also fear failure, there is
little left that we can do. We have wandered down a
blind alley where change and growth are impossible and
where learning must be minimal. This promotes the
vindictive attitude of people wanting to cut down the
tall poppies so that they won't be short by comparison.
Such people see success in others as akin to stealing
what is rightfully theirs. They also see their own
failures as due to others preventing them from having
what the world owes them.
people however, are well adjusted to failing and
certainly are not afraid of success. Such people are
willing to embrace change; all they need is the right
circumstances to accomplish this. They welcome a little
help, but we live in a world where help often equates
with sacrifice. If we help someone to win, our culture
or society usually determines that we are ensuring our
own sacrificial failure. This however is not inevitable.
The anthropologist Ruth Benedict asserted that societies
can be such, that a win-lose structure is not in
evidence. She called such cooperative societies
"synergic societies" and they are characterized by the
large amount of "synergy" that exists between the
members of that society. Synergy as described here is
the automatic way in which, what benefits one, benefits
needed is an effort to change our own society and
culture in the direction of being more synergic. Such a
synergic society would encourage many successes, and
support successes by promoting synergy so that any
person's success leads automatically to the success of
others, and in no way allows people to see another's
success as their loss. After all, this is at base a
matter of perception. Generally speaking, we do not see
great works of art as attempts to make us look bad and
demonstrate how uncreative we are in comparison. Why
then should we see somebody winning a contest as making
the other contestants look bad. Why is there only one
winner? To be a competitor deserves recognition. Are
they really losers?
It is a
curious thing that in sport, which models the broad
themes of society, a game is not interesting if one
person or one team trounces the other too easily. The
interesting games are the ones that are close. These are
games where a non winning contestant plays so well that
he makes the opposing person or team deserving of their
triumph. If you want to appear great, you are better off
promoting your opponent and telling the world how great
he is, so if you overcome him, then that greatness is
reflected in you. Also, it is not appealing to watch a
lopsided game where somebody is kicked when already
down. In teams, winning is more facilitated where each
member supports what other members are doing, rather
than acting individually. This is clearly illustrated in
super teams where the best players are put together to
form a super team. Such a team can be dysfunctional to
such an extent that it often plays worse than a normal
good team. In their book
"The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph
Keyes give us the following examples:
admire an infielder who makes extra errors lunging for
out-of-reach balls than one who makes fewer errors
because he sticks to high-percentage plays.
wins are enjoyed only by those who risk huge
losses 'I've missed more than nine thousand shots in
my career.' admitted Michael Jordon. 'I've lost almost
three hundred games. Twenty six times I've been
trusted to to take the winning shot and missed. I've
failed over and over and over again in my life. And
that is why I succeeded.'"
the idea of synergy in sport is best characterized by
the Burmese kick ball game of "Chinlone". In this game
the team does not have an opponent and the members of
the team seek only to enhance each other's play and keep
the ball in the air. This was clearly demonstrated in
the fascinating movie "Mystic Ball" by Greg Hamilton.
synergic we can make our society, the better that world
will be for all that live in it. In such a society
everyone's perception of the success of some, is that of
providing a better chance for all others. In such a
society one person's success or winning would merely
provide an inspiration to induce others to win or be
successful. It is a choice after all whether we see a
person's success as disheartening, because we did not do
the best, or as inspirational to encourage us to do
better, and as a lesson in how to do it better. To truly
learn we must both seek to be successful and be willing
strike brings me closer to the next home run." Babe
only difference between stumbling blocks and
stepping-stones is the way we use them." Denis
Waitley quoting ancient folk wisdom.
Playing to win, winning to play.
the world's greatest sports people feel better about
performing at the pinnacle of ability than they do about
winning. The importance of winning for such people is
that, if they win they will be able to play again. After
all nobody is allowed to play if they just keep losing.
In their book
"The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph
after he ended his career as one of basketball's
all-time best players, Bill Russell made a startling
admission: He found some games so absorbing and so
intense that it made no difference to him who won or
lost. This usually happened when his Boston Celtics
played a team that was challenging them for the NBA
championship. ...We assume that success is the
pinnacle, failure the pits. They're not, The real
pinnacle is when we are so engaged in doing what we
are doing that this distinction vanishes. Athletes
call it being in the zone."
pretty much the same for scientists every time they make
some amazing discovery they get more opportunities to do
even more interesting research.
reward for work well done is the opportunity to do
more." Dr. Jonas Salk
to become successful at failure. The idea is not to
avoid failure but rather to bring yourself to the point
where you can fail without fear. A really amazing thing
happens if you fail and keep going after you fail, then
trying again till you are successful. When this happens,
your anticipation of failure becomes part of your
anticipation of success. Failure begins to be correctly
perceived as part of the way to success. If you can
reach this point then all fear of failure will
disappear. You will actually come to look forward to
failure as part of the process towards a more difficult
and satisfying success. It is thus possible to revise
our map of reality so that it incorporates failure as
part of success. If we can do this our perception of
failure becomes the perception of a stepping stone to
success. An inventor fails 999 times, and if he succeeds
once, he's achieved his goal. He treats his failures
simply as practice shots. His glory is not in never
failing, but in rising every time he falls.
heroic minds are the stepping stones to success."
Thomas C. Haliburton
time you don't fail is the last time you try anything --
and it works." William Strong
is defeat? Nothing but education. Nothing but the
first step to something better." Wendell
and realistic expectations.
also manage success and failure in yet another way by
controlling our expectations in the real world. We can
develop some conscious control over what we expect and
what we anticipate. With regard to success and failure,
it is possible to increase or decrease the strength of
expectation or anticipation. In his book
"Failing Forward" John C. Maxwell has this to say:
want to take a stroll in your neighborhood, you can
reasonably expect to have few, if any, problems. But
this is not the case if you intend to climb Mount
Everest. It takes time, effort and the ability to
overcome setbacks. You have to approach each day with
reasonable expectations, and not get your feelings
hurt when everything does not turn out perfectly."
To go on
such a journey it is necessary to monitor our own
expectations of success and failure to determine if they
are realistic. This can be something of a paradox. On
the one hand we need to lower expectations to the point
where success is possible, so that we don't find it
non-motivating if we fail. On the other we have to aim
high enough so as to accomplish something worthwhile. We
need to be able to have expectations that allow us to
accomplish something more difficult each time we try.
Pessimists often use their poor understanding of harsh
realities to lower their sights back to inactivity. But
this is not solving the problem. We can be realistic and
still reach way beyond what others think is possible.
Maxwell continues with a baseball story:
happened on baseball's opening day in 1954 illustrates
the point well. The Milwaukee Braves and the
Cincinnati Reds played each other, and a rookie played
for each team made his major-league debut during the
game. The rookie who played for the Reds hit four
doubles and helped his team win with a score of 9-8.
The rookie for the Braves went 0 for 5. The Reds
player was Jim Greengrass, a name you probably haven't
heard. The other guy, who didn't get a hit, might be
more familiar to you. His name was Hank Aaron, the
player who became the best home run hitter in the
history of baseball.
Aaron's expectations for that first game had been
unrealistic, who knows? he might have given up
baseball. Surely he wasn't happy about his performance
that day, but he didn't think of himself as a failure.
He had worked too hard and too long. He wasn't about
to give up easily."
expectations of success are too high, we continue to
try but because the expectations are unrealistic,
they have slim chance of success. Maxwell, in
"Failing Forward" tells the story about himself and
his own unrealistically high expectations when he
first became a preacher. He might have given up
without help from his father:
the type of church I led, each year the people
voted to decide whether to allow the leader to
keep his job. And many of the leaders I knew over
the years loved to brag about the unanimous
affirming votes they received from their people.
My expectations were high as I prepared to receive
my first unanimous vote. Imagine my surprise when
the votes came back 31 yeses 1 no and 1
abstention. I was devastated." He called his
father who held a high position in the church.
"Dad," he lamented "Somebody actually
voted against me and wanted me to leave the
church! Should I leave and go to another church?"
To his shock he heard laughter on the other end
of the phone. "No son stay there," his
father chuckled. "That's probably the best vote
you'll ever receive."
expectations of success are too low they produce
insufficient impetus, which can also retard the
if our anticipation of failure is too extreme, it
will discourage motivation which leads to less
likelihood of eventual success.
final corollary, if our expectations of failure
aren't sufficient, they may keep us trying when the
chances of success are almost non existent.
expect defeat is nine-tenths of defeat itself." Francis
is going from failure to failure with no loss of
enthusiasm." Winston Churchhill
every person who has become successful has simply
formed the habit of doing things that failures dislike
doing and will not do. You can fail so very often. But
you are not a failure until you give up." source
time you try to win everything, you must be willing to
lose everything." Larry Csonka
only true failure lies in failure to start." Harold
may fall many times but he won't be a failure until he
says someone pushed him." Elmer G. Letterman
is a matter of perception.
the most important findings in science happened when the
scientist was looking for something else. Some of the
world's greatest inventions happened when the inventors
were trying to invent something else. Basically a lot of
things came into existence by accidence. Should we say
these people were failures or successes? Alexander
Graham Bell was trying to invent a hearing aid when he
discovered the principle of the telephone. X-rays were
also an accidental discovery by Wilhelm Roentgen. The
pace maker was also an accidental invention by Wilson
Greatbatch. All these people failed, but their genius
was in recognizing the potential in what just turned up
and not by passing it. In fact all these people were
can cheat you out of ultimate success but yourself."
Ralph Waldo Emmerson
One way to
facilitate others to deal with failure, is by giving
them examples of how successful people failed before
they became successful. Here is a short list of people
who have failed. If you look you, will find many more.
failed and went broke five times before he finally
succeeded. Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was too
stupid to learn anything. He tested five thousand
different materials while seeking a filament that would
make an electric light work. Even then he failed to
create a light bulb 200 times before he succeeded. J. R.
Simplot the Idaho potato king was driven to the verge of
bankruptcy after the second world war. This situation
would have finished a lesser man, but he somehow
struggled on to become the supplier for McDonalds and
much of the fast food industry. Walt Disney was fired by
a newspaper editor for lack of ideas. Walt Disney also
went bankrupt several times before he built Disneyland.
Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest thinkers of all
time, had some huge failures and made colossal mistakes.
His most tragic failure was perhaps his unsuccessful
attempts to permanently fix paint for the "The Battle of
Anghiari" and "The Last Supper".
most important of my discoveries has been suggested to
me by my failures." Sir Humphrey Davy a famous chemist.
the 200 light bulbs that didn't work, every failure
told me something that I was able to incorporate into
the next attempt." Thomas Edison
two positive types of reactions to failure. One is to
see that you were wrong in what you did, and that you
must try to do something else. The other is that you are
right and the rest of the world is wrong, and thus to
try again to do what you are doing. These two reactions
are tightly bound together usually and it is difficult
to separate them. For someone like Edison, both these
reactions are true at once. On the one hand, each time
he tries to make a light bulb and fails, he learns a way
not to do it and does not repeat this again. On the
other hand he does not stop trying to make the light
bulb because he believes one can be made. He simply has
not found how to do it yet.
Carlson Inventor of the "Xerox Machine" spent 17 years
trying to get various companies interested in his
device. Alfred Mosher Butts aggressively marketed
"Scrabble" for four years before it caught on. Orville
and Wilber Wright worked unsuccessfully for years trying
to build a motorized airplane. Johannes Kepler filled
9000 sheets with calculations over nine years before he
realized the orbits of planets were elliptical and not
circular. After Fred Astaire’s first screen test, the
memo from the testing director of MGM, dated 1933, said,
“Can’t act! Slightly Bald! Can dance a little!” Astaire
kept that memo over the fireplace in his Beverly Hills
home. Albert Einstein did not speak until he was four
years old and didn’t read until he was seven. His
teacher described him as “mentally slow, unsociable and
adrift forever in his foolish dreams.” He was expelled
and refused admittance to Zurich Polytechnic School. The
sculptor Rodin’s father said, “I have an idiot for a
son.” Described as the worst pupil in the school, Rodin
failed three times to secure admittance to the school of
art. His uncle called him uneducable. These people
succeeded in the end beyond anybody's wildest
famous people, it may be said, never succeeded in their
own lifetime. Vincent Van Gough was a failure as an
artist, never having sold a painting in his life.
Evariste Galois was a complete failure in life, having
achieved neither fame, wealth, nor the recognition of
his peers. He is however arguably the greatest
mathematician that has ever lived. These people could be
said never to have succeeded, but they never stopped
trying and later their work made them immortal.
question is, you have these two possible reactions to
failure, so which one do you as an individual chose? How
do you find the right path to take? For this, alas,
there is no real right answer. Vincent Van Gough knew he
was painting great art and continued despite the fact
that other people thought he was wasting his life. No
one can tell you when to give up or when to continue
doing what you are doing. No doubt there were many
people who took their books to publisher after publisher
and never got them published. A few of them might have
succeeded if they had just tried a couple more times,
while others had really just produced a dog that could
never be published. The thing is, you can do only what
you believe in at the time. If others can convince you
that it is not worth continuing, then you have to stop.
The study of creative people can give but the flimsiest
of hints as to which path to follow. These hints warn us
only that we should not give up too easily. These hints
confirm that even though nobody else believes, if we
truly believe ourselves, we should not give up. Also
they tell us not to give up because of fear of failure
or other fears. It informs us that logical risk
assessment can only be applied up to a point. It prompts
us to ask, if it is really worth doing. But it advises
us to give up only if we no longer believe.
Facilitation of failure recovery.
can others do to facilitate fearlessness in the face of
failure, and to enable this often feared thing to
instead be perceived as an opportunity? The answer,
perhaps unsurprisingly, is to be found in Carol Dweck's
mindsets or self-theories. Dweck's theory concerns the
idea that people are propelled by life circumstances in
one of two directions. They can be becoming fixed in
abilities and in intelligence like flies in amber (with
a fixed mindset) or they can be changing incrementally
every moment becoming something ever unknown and
unknowable (with a growth mindset).
Dweck had the following to say about failure in her book
it was as though a lightbulb went on. We had thought
that you coped with failure or you didn't cope with
failure. We didn't think of failure as a thing to
embrace with relish. These students were teaching us
what true mastery-oriented reactions were."
related elsewhere, only a growth mindset can provide the
confidence in ones capacity to learn that can protect
one from failure. How is this achieved? It is achieved
in three main ways.
It is achieved by example of good role
It is achieved by how we praise those we
wish to strengthen.
It is achieved by how we criticize those
we wish to strengthen.
It is achieved by attribution retraining.
Facilitators have to become good role models for
children by setting a good example, of being
unflinching, and even excited by the challenge of
failure. This is mostly about fostering a growth
mindset yourself. Facilitators have to believe that
their potential, the one with which they are genetically
endowed, is unknowable, and that therefore they may,
with sufficient hard work, be able to learn how to do
anything. This self belief will be exposed to children
through what they do, how they do it and especially what
facilitators say to children, what they say to
themselves in the presence of children, and what they
say to others in the presence of children, are all vital
in promoting the fearlessness, and excitement at
the opportunity to learn, that failure presents. Here
are the sort of things you should be saying: "Accomplishment
isn't meant to be easy", "Mistakes are
stepping stones to success", "A good challenge
makes work worthwhile", "Success is never
permanent, and failure is never final", "There is no
failure. Only feedback.", "Success is 99 percent failure."
households where such comments are often heard and so
repeated, children are being nurtured to have a growth
mindset and be so confident of their ability to learn to
do anything that they can push past any failure.
of praise that immunizes children against fear of
failure, and promotes at the possibility of learning
from failure is praise of effort. It is praise of hard
work. It is praise of persistence. It is praise of
improvement. It is praise of the strategies they have
used. It is never praise of the children themselves. In
order to build a growth mindset one should avoid even
praising the work of children. Instead praise the effort
they have put in, praise the hard work they have put in,
praise how they have persisted till they understood
something or solved a problem, praise the strategies
they have used to do it. Perhaps most importantly praise
children for having persisted and risen out of failure
to try again.
functions much the same way. There is a kind of
criticism that also immunizes children against fear of
failure and promotes the possibility of learning from
failure. This is criticism of effort, criticism of the
time put in, criticism of how hard one has tried,
criticism of how long and hard one has persisted, and
criticism of the amount and variety of strategies one
has applied. On the other hand in order to avoid
building a fixed mindset one should endeavor not to
criticize a child personally. Likewise one should try
not to criticize the child's work other that to give
feedback as to what is being done badly or incorrectly
and how to improve it. Good criticism that fosters a
growth mindset is that which tells the truth about how
good or bad the work is, but also provides indications
of how it can be improved. This kind of criticism works
well when mixed with effortful praise as suggested
4 Attribution retraining.
how Carol Dweck and her team were able to intervene in
the lives of a number of grade school students who she
had found to have an extremely averse response to
failure and move the to have a more positive and growth
mindset response to failure. She performed an experiment
where the failure adverse students were divided into two
randomly generated groups where one group was made
confident by carefully allowing them to succeed while
the other group was trained to interpret their failures
as stepping stones to success. Carol Dweck explains:
group received training that largely consisted of
success. We did this precisely to test the idea that
giving students a history of success in the situation
might build their expectation of success and allow
them to cope better with any failure they might
encounter. So in each session they received 15 success
trials on which they completed new sets of math
problems within the allotted time. The time limit
always posed something of a challenge, so that the
task would remain interesting and the success would
feel meaningful. The students seemed delighted with
other group received training in how to interpret
their failures. This was called 'attribution
retraining' because we were teaching a new attribution
or explanation for failure. For them 2 or 3 of the 15
trials in each session were failure trials. On these
trials, students failed to finish the required number
of problems within the time limit. They were stopped
and shown how many problems they had needed in order
to succeed on that trial, and told: 'You needed [say]
six, you only got five. That means you should have
failure was now interpreted in terms of their effort
rather than their ability. These were students that
strongly blamed their ability when they failed, and we
were teaching them to focus on effort instead.
order to make the this message credible I made sure
that the students fell short by only one or two
problems and I made sure that by the end of the
session they had reached the highest we said they
needed. (Its critical that students not feel you are
not just paying lip service to effort. A pat message
to try harder will be tuned out very quickly.)"
her team checked the effects of the training in the
middle of the 15 trials and at the end of the 15 trials.
She did this by asking each group to tackle a sheet of
very hard problems they were bound to fail at. Here is
her assessment of of the study:
the end of training the group that got the success
training still showed no improvement. In fact, some of
them looked like they were more affected by the
failure than they had been at the beginning...
contrast, the group that got the attribution training
improved greatly, to the point where several of them
showed better performance after failure than they they
showed before it - just like the mastery-oriented
students, some of the students in this group
spontaneously gave themselves instructions to try
harder during the failure trials.
was perhaps even more fascinating was that these
students' teachers didn't know which students had
received which training, and they wished they could
give me favorable reports on all the students we
worked with. However they singled out for special
comment those students who wer given the new meaning
told me that some of these students, who had often
been given less work than their classmates so they
wouldn't feel overwhelmed, were now requesting more
work. They also told me that the students were
persisting more appropriately, as well as asking
appropriately for help when they needed it instead of
just giving up."
clear that for the attribution retraining group not only
had the aversion to failure disappeared but that these
children has at least temporarily if not permanently
shifted from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. As to
the other group Dweck has the following to say:
students hold an entity theory, [fixed
and success are not enough. Confidence and success do
not seem to breed a desire for challenge or the needed
fortification against failure."
answers are also to be found in Deci and Ryan's
Self-determination theory. We must be careful not
to help children too much. Children need to learn that
they can learn how to do things themselves. It is
essential that we stop children from giving up easily
before they have made their mightiest effort.
Facilitators can encourage learners to try again.
Facilitators can tell children they can do it when they
make sufficient effort, if they think the children can,
or help them break it down into smaller units if they
think children can not. The gentlest of nudges is
and letting try.
should not be pushed or their fear of failure may be
increased. If we are careful, we can help children to
try and try again, be it walking, be it talking, or what
ever they are trying to do. However, it may well be that
very young learners do not need this encouragement, as
they are well motivated to do it with little help.
way we can help, is simply to not alert children to our
fears of their lack of ability, intelligence or
potential. We should be aware that by trying to
encourage them or help children to try again after
failing, we can try too hard and inadvertently do just
the opposite, by projecting our own fears. A parent's
worst fear is that their child will not be normal or
unable to do things on time or quickly enough. This can
increase the child's anxiety rather than lessen it, or
even unintentionally create a neurotic fear in the
child, where there was previously only fearlessness.
Again it turns out that learning is all about
confidence; confidence we can learn to do it ourselves
in the face of failure, confidence we can absorb it
ourselves in the face of failure, confidence to push
past failure to be successful ourselves, and confidence
to fail without fear ourselves.
facilitators the important thing is a matter of
redefining the experience of failure as a learning
experience. Facilitators who are able to help learners
experience failure in this positive light can greatly
enhance the learners ability to learn. Many of the new
companies especially in the computer industry have found
many new ways of letting their employees know that
failure is okay. Not only are they not chastised for
failing, but sometimes they are chastised for not
failing enough. In their book
"The Innovation Paradox" Farson and Keyes tell the
part of the research and development team at Apple,
David Levy was reprimanded by his boss for not making
enough mistakes. Levy's boss said he wanted no less
than 80 percent failure in ventures he attempted. Only
then would he know that Levy was actually trying
anything new. Levy took the advice to heart. Now a
freelance inventor, he lives by the credo that 'If I'm
not failing enough, I'm not doing my job.'"
it only takes one sound idea to achieve success."
business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to
fail in good spirits." Robert Louis Stevenson
In the end
facilitators whether they be parents, teachers or
business managers can do most for those in their charge
by encouraging a growth mindset. In this way they can
enable those around them to see the world and themselves
as being malleable, subject to change and improvement
great attempts it is glorious even to fail." Cassius
all failures--at least, all the best of us are." James
"All honor to him who shall win the prize.
The world has cried for a thousand years.
But to him who tries and fails and dies,
I give great honor and glory and tears."
long learning and failure.
is the most important tool in learning. If you cannot
fail you cannot learn. If you are afraid to make
mistakes and to fail, you will try to make no mistakes
and to never fail. When you do this learning becomes
impossible. If you can embrace mistakes and failure as
part of the learning process, this fear will either
evaporate or be transformed into excitement. Learning
thus becomes the enjoyable process it should be, and our
desire to indulge in it will only intensify with time.
As our desire to learn thus intensifies as we get older,
we continue to learn more and more. We become life long