Learning to Fail

Last year I was privileged to hear Nobel Prize Winner Peter Doherty speak. His career stories were fascinating, but the single most crucial message he had to impart was electrifying. It was this: You’re going to fail. A lot. Get used to it.

Here at Pathological Perfectionists R US, we specialise in all or nothing behaviour. We either nail it or fail catastrophically. We’re either awesome or disastrously useless. Given the inherent difficulty of being permanently perfect, disastrously useless (and hence rather depressed) is a common feeling in this house.

The school system, too, tends to encourage this approach. You do something, submit it, get your mark and move on. You either nail it or not. There’s often no opportunity to learn from where you went wrong – exams, reports, teachers, students and parents alike focus on the final mark, at the expense of the learning experience. Awards are given for students who top the subject – regardless of how hard they had to work to do it. Students who make immense progress but “fail” to top the subject fail to get that recognition.

The Dux of a school is the student with the highest overall mark. Yet the Dux of life is surely the student who learns the most. The student who knows how to fail. Who takes failure, learns from it and moves on. Who knows how to get back up after being knocked down. Sometimes the student who started at the bottom and climbed to the middle has come a lot further and learnt a lot more than the student who finishes at the top.

How do you take a child who sees things only in black and white – success and failure – and teach her that failing is one of the most valuable things she can do? That she will learn more from her mistakes than she can ever learn from her successes? That every time she stuffs up she has an opportunity to become a better person?

You better believe there will be times in your life
When you’ll be feeling like a stumbling fool
So take it from me you’ll learn more from your accidents
Than anything that you could ever learn at school
Billy Joel – You’re Only Human

That’s not a problem I know how to solve – yet. The best I can do, I think, is lead by example. I have started telling my kids more about my own failures. It’s tempting to be your own press secretary and only let the good stories go to air, but if we learn a lot from our own mistakes, why can’t we learn from the mistakes of others?

Academic publications have a bias towards successful papers – they like to print the papers that solve the problem. But equally important in science are the papers that explain why solving a problem with method (a) doesn’t work. These papers provide the foundation to move on to methods (b) (c) and (d). They eliminate possibilities one by one until an answer can be found.

Maybe it’s the same in parenting, and even teaching. We may not be able to teach them that failure is a chance to learn and grow, but we can certainly show them. By confessing our mistakes and being open about what we learnt from them, maybe we can help them to recognise that failure is an opportunity rather than a catastrophe.

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One thought on “Learning to Fail

  1. Joe

    (Chimes in recalling research that says Distinction grade students from university are not subsequently as “successful” [career progression and earnings] nor as happy as Credit grade students.)

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