Day 74 (of 184) thoughts on failure
Failure is an option.
It has to be.
There is a professor at MIT who offers a course on failure. He does that, he says, because failure is a far more common practice than success. An interviewer once asked him if anybody ever failed the course on failure. He thought a moment and replied, “No, but there were two incompletes”.
Confession time: I failed a couple of courses at university. Sure there were some outlying reasons, but my most significant one was French – I had done well enough in French 11 (but bypassed French 12) that that meant there was ‘one’ french course at UBC I was eligible to take. And I did miserably on it. I did even worse the second time. In the final exam (worth way to much of the final course mark) I knew I was due for another round – and when I raised my hand to confess my lack of skills, it ended up being the head of the department who said “I’m sure you’ll do fine. If you don’t, come see me at the start of next year”.
Sure enough, I was at her office before I began my third (and fortunately final) round of francais. At least I get to tell people I have three years of university french under my belt….
But the failure taught me some significant lessons, mainly that the sun still rose the next day and that I could still get up and try a different challenge. And while it looks awkward on my transcript, I still managed to enter education and do some ‘neat’ things.
Some of my other ‘failures’ have included not saving a video project after an hour of edits. Surprisingly, I didn’t learn better the first time and had a couple of “re-dos”.
I even put some failures onto my eportfolio – which led to one of my assistant superintendents asking me why I would do such a thing. I reason that my failures are not as grandeous as many others who are much more successful than I:
Edison and his reputed 1000 attempts (or steps) to invent the lightbulb
Lincoln to being elected to public office (any public office) several times
Einstein being ‘adrift forever in foolish dreams’
Fred Smith (Fed Ex) being given a C for his paper detailing his ’interesting and well formed, but not feasible’ idea of reliable overnight delivery service
Walt Disney being fired because he ‘lacked imagination and had no good ideas’
and a host of other athletic and business ‘failures’.
Now, I admit that personal failures still bug me (like trying to hook up an AppleTV to a heavily password protected ‘public’ wifi signal in a school) but don’t often cause me to ‘stop’. I just have to think differently…
And that might be in part due to me connecting failure with innovation. I would often ‘embrace chaos’ when entering a classroom where we were playing with ‘different’ learning methodologies – moving away from worksheet mindsets into open-ended learning activities that would have more than one answer, and several pathways that would get there.
A tweet today from @TomWhitby asked: How can we say that we promote innovation when we stifle the voice of potentially the best innovative contributors we have? My best answer was: I guess we have to create cultures of “yes” – we can’t be willing to put the “NO” in innovate…
If we want learning to be creative and innovative, we have to be willing to go beyond our comfort zones, which often includes helping students avoid ‘failure’. And I’ll admit ‘failure by doing nothing’ is very different from ‘failure while trying a variety of things’ – and I want my learners (and my own children) to be willing to ‘try’ even if it means crashing and burning a couple of times along the way.
Confucius put it nicely: Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.
Edwin Land also says “The essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail”
And in a learning (?) culture where a C+ on a report card can be deemed a ‘failure’ by parents….we’ve got some work to do. And if it doesn’t work the first time, I’m okay with trying something different (yes this does connect to my earlier blogs and tweets about shifting from report cards to portfolios)
If anything, I’m more interested in ‘epic fails’ (and rebounding victories) than moderate successes….at least that’s what my browser history and current reading via ibooks is informing me!