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Failure? Look again.

Words are so precious. They form like clouds, from nothing in our minds, and we use them to convey what we think and feel. They’re magic, really.

They can be flowers or marshmallows or poison, or worse yet, they can be something that we don’t even realise. Beyond conveying to others, they can impact our own perceptions. Explaining this to some students brought a lightbulb moment about the conception and understanding of failure.

Failure is generally understood to be something undesirable, not the goal, and certainly not something to celebrate doing in public. Society tells us to win, not fail. Reach for the stars, accomplish your goals. Yes, this is all good, and certainly we should have goals that stretch us beyond anything we can dream.

So where does failure come in to all this winning?

First failure comes in to the approach we take with goals. We do not try. It is something I genuinely believe. You do or you do not, and Yoda speak aside, there really is no try. If I ask you to wash my car, you either wash the car or you do not wash the car. You do not try to wash the car. The concept of try implies failure. It implies a forever unaccomplished task. Show me trying to wash the car that is not either washing or not washing the car. When you think of it that way, the concept dissolves and sounds rather odd. It may well be that it takes time to wash the car, but once you start, you are still washing it.

So if trying implies failure, and failure is also seen as not doing something… then we could reframe the whole concept of failure. Instead of seeing failure as a form of finality, could we see failure as a lack of completeness. Do we see a lack of completion as failure? Is it? As these thoughts accumulated in my mind, I happened to be quite hungry, as I hadn’t yet eaten my lunch. I held up my sandwich and said – There is no way I can complete the task of eating this sandwich in one go. It will take many iterative attempts to eat it (as in I have to take bites of the sandwich).

How silly would it be if after every bite I announced my failure to eat the sandwich?

That does sound ridiculous, but hang on, in life do we look at a given task and declare failure when we’re only part way through – simply because we have that one distant goal in mind. Obviously with eating a sandwich, we do accomplish the eating, and we recognise each stage as progress. How easily with other tasks do we forget? Instead of seeing the lack of completion, choose to mark your progress. Viewed through a different lens failure becomes iterative learning, and ceases to be something to avoid. Each iteration becomes something to celebrate.

Image CC BY-NC-SA by Jeanne

Featured image CC-BY by John Liu

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. @laura You realize I'm never going to be able to eat a sandwich the same way now. Failing to complete the sandwich each time I take a bite.Ten bites of failure, one bite of success.

    January 30, 2020
  2. Collette Batho #

    Thankyou for posting this. I already feel more positive about progress in my piano learning.

    January 30, 2020
    • Laura Ritchie #

      Collette, thanks for posting a comment. You are lovely and that small shift in perspective can make such a difference, especially when learning something that seems to take a long time, or be far to get to the final goal. Keep going!

      January 31, 2020
  3. I believe you have found an excellent view of failure in this post.

    Educators, parents and learners all need to think this idea through.

    January 30, 2020
    • Laura Ritchie #

      Thanks Algot. In the spirit of your wordplay I’m tempted to suggest they could chew it over? (really, really bad pun there)

      January 31, 2020

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