Michelle’s Word

June 5, 2007

I Want to Fail Better

Filed under: Failing,Learning,Speaking — Michelle Reid @ 5:23 pm

Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.

I see this quotation by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett everyday. It’s emblazoned on the wall outside a lecture theatre at the University of Reading. As I pass by, I always wonder what does it mean to “fail better”?

So I want to work out what this means, calling on some illustrious companions…Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Bob Dylan…to help overturn your perceptions of failure.

American inventor, Thomas Edison, is credited with saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

This confidence in the process of experimentation and exploration is what I try to convey in my job as a study adviser at Reading. Often students get their essays back and get a lower mark than they expected, so they come to us for answers: “What do I need to do to get better marks?” Straight away, I fail to meet their expectations, as I tell them there is no elusive secret to getting higher marks. Then we begin a process of trial and error helping the student understand why and how they learn best. Often it means seeing things in a different light, like thinking of an essay like navigating a river.

This change in perception is part of “failing better”. We normally have a narrow conception of success – a flat mark on a piece of paper, and all the rest is consigned to the rubbish bin of not- quite- right. In which case we’re all failing most of the time; it’s a normal state. Rather than constantly not being good enough, better to look at it as a liberation and a process of being allowed to experiment.

But the way students like the neat security of the right answer made me wonder how we learn more generally.

Einstein said “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

Have you thought about how you react when you have to do something new?

Are you a performance targeted learner – Someone who wants to learn in order to win the prize. Performance learners use strategic methods, and calculate exactly what they have to do in order to achieve, then do no more.

Or are you a mastery targeted learner – Someone who learns, not for the sake of winning rewards, but to foster a deep understanding. Mastery learners tend to take risks and try harder tasks.

Learning is all about falling over and getting back up again, but the British education system breeds performance targeted learners and instils a real fear of failure. However, recognising and defusing this fear can help people learn. To give an example, I was at a workshop on running given by Malcolm Balk a Canadian athlete. We were in a circle and had to balance on one leg. We all concentrated on not teetering and looking foolish, until Malcolm told us all to look up and outwards; to delight in the fact that someone opposite us was balancing worse than we were. We all laughed because we each thought we were the worst, and we were all secretly sizing up how everyone else was doing. Bringing this fear into the open diffused the tension; we could sympathise with each other’s anxiety, so we allowed ourselves to fail better and fall better.

What about learning public speaking…it’s one of the most scary thing to learn. Why? Because every time we get up to speak, we fail. You can’t understand exactly what I’m trying to say (or write), because what’s in my head is filtered through my words, then filtered by your ears, and then processed by your minds.

Let me demonstrate: I say the word “Dog”

…and you’re all thinking different things now, from preening poodles to gangling greyhounds, and all strange associations connected to the word dog that I don’t really want to go into! Language fails because the symbols “D-O-G” are an arbitrary label, there is no inherent connection between them and the idea of a dog, or the thing which is a dog. That’s great because interpretation and imagination slip into these gaps. Yet when we communicate we’re always trying to bridge these gaps in language, so we’re striving to fail better.

“Failing better” means broadening ideas of success, overcoming the fear of learning, and enjoying the imperfections of communication.

We have solved Beckett’s puzzle, but there’s this other quotation that’s been bothering me. It’s a lyric from Bob Dylan’s song Love Minus Zero No Limit: “there’s no success like failure / And failure’s no success at all.”Now what does that mean?

(This is a version of a speech I gave a few weeks ago at The Oxford Speakers Club. Thank you to everyone at the club who gave me really helpful feedback on it. The audience seemed to appreciate the message, so I thought I’d share it with you guys!)


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