Failure is Important
My run this morning wasn’t great. I laboured through it. My time was below my usual pace and I was struggling. I didn’t run as far as I usually run and my side hurt.
It was a great run.
Huh? How can that be?
It was great because I ran. It all depends on how I frame the run. If I frame it by the time, it wasn’t very good. If I frame by comparing it to past runs, it wasn’t a success. But if I frame differently, as something I do as part of trying to live a healthy lifestyle, it was a great run. I didn’t let the fact that it wasn’t a nice morning keep me from lacing on my runners and heading outside. It wasn’t just my effort either. Today my best wasn’t as good as a couple past runs but it is better than when I would find an excuse not to run. Instead of giving up or finding an excuse, I went out and ran.
It’s Not Just Effort
Part of my daily routine includes exercise. I usually listen to a podcast when exercising. Todd Henry’s Accidental Creative is one of my favourites. Today I was listening to an interview with Mitch Joel who hosts Six Pixels of Separation . During the discussion the topic of failure came up. Lately when someone begins discussing failure there is a familiar frame “Fail fast, fail forward, fail often, fail…. ” where failure is described as almost the reason people do things – so they can fail. However, as Todd Henry points out, failure isn’t wonderful or great, it’s not the reason people do things but it can be one of the outcomes when people do something. Failure is not the desired outcome, success is what people strive towards. For failure to be beneficial, there needs to be a way for a person or organization to examine what happened and make adjustments so improvements can be made. Blindly rushing forward without any way of reflecting on what takes place may lead to success. Or it may lead to failure. But without a plan or way to examine the process, duplicating the success or avoiding further failure becomes very difficult if not impossible. By framing my run as part of living a healthy lifestyle, I can see that it is only one part of a bigger plan for success.
Learning from Our Mistakes
When I was younger I used to show up at the gym, maybe do a little bit of cardio, some light workout and then jump into the work and work hard. However, no matter how hard I worked in the gym, I made little gains and I often would end up slowly missing a workout here and a run there until, you guessed it, there was 2 months between gym visits! I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. Why did I start out strong only to slowly quit?
Like most people, I was only looking at the exercise part of my life . It wasn’t until I began to look at all areas of my life, including diet, sleep, and exercise, that I began to see any sustained improvement. But, despite taking a closer look, I would still fall into the same rut where I would be start great but eventually fall off. What was I doing wrong? Why was I failing? Why was I exercising anyway?
By focusing on what and how, I had missed examining why. This little shift in focus, from what and how to why, has helped me to reconsider how I examine and reflect upon what I am doing and the failures that I experience.
We Over-estimate Our Ability
It wasn’t until I began to seriously look at my goals for exercising, why I was doing what I was doing, that I saw how I needed to be able to recognize ways I was sabotaging my efforts by not being realistic about my own abilities, adjust my plan and record daily what I was doing. Technology helped me, I bought a fitness band, to track what I was doing beyond the exercising. This alone did not make me a better athlete which was a bit of a disappointment! Just adding technology didn’t make me suddenly find success.
Instead, it gave me the incentive and some easy ways to remind myself to do things like get up and have a drink of water or walk around for 15 minutes. It wasn’t that I didn’t know to do these things but I didn’t do them regularly. I over-estimated my own ability to follow routines long enough for them to become a habit that would become part of the day.
I also over-estimated my own ability when it came to exercise but I didn’t know this until I began to keep track of my exercise patterns and what I was doing. Like many people, I over-estimated my ability to recover from intense workouts before my body had time to adjust to a new workload. And, funny thing, as I get older it takes a bit longer to recover from my own over-estimation of ability which means I was continuing a cycle of failure but looking in the wrong places to correct what was happening. Like many people, I wanted to improve but I continued to experience failure. Why?
Eventually I realized that I wasn’t looking at the whole picture. I didn’t have a success plan. Instead, I was working with a FAIL plan. I wasn’t looking at the points of success but instead would try to figure out what went wrong, looking at the failures without also examining the successes I had. Although it was important to understand what I was doing wrong, I wasn’t looking at what I was doing right! When things didn’t work, I focused solely on my exercise habits and not my lifestyle.
Have a Success Plan?
As an educator, I admit that I didn’t have a success plan. It wasn’t that I didn’t plan or use reflection for my own growth or look at ways to improve. For most of my career, I have been extremely interested in professional development. Like my exercise program, I often didn’t look at the successes but focused on the failures to see what I could learn. It wasn’t until recently that I began to look at the successes along with the failures. Even in failure there are successes that take place. I’ve rarely experienced an utter failure unless you count that cake when I used way too much baking soda – that was a complete failure! However, most of the time, the failure wasn’t so complete that there wasn’t some successes. I also began to focus on success, building forwards instead of expecting failure.
The goal is not to fail but to learn from mistakes in order to improve toward success. I don’t write blog posts so no one will read them. Hopefully, over time from the feedback I receive, I will learn to write better which will make people share my writing with others.
Failure Can Promotes Growth
Continuously failing is demoralizing unless there is a way to bring that failure forward to improve and continue on. Even when I exercise, continually working to failure taxes my body too much if that is all that I do. It’s alright to work to failure at times but not all the time. It’s too hard. Failure can help us to grow but if all we do is work to failure, it eventually takes it toll.
As educators, helping students learn from failure is crucial to their learning and growth. As Carol Dweck outlines in the article Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’
Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the growth mindset with effort. Certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve.
We also need to remember that effort is a means to an end to the goal of learning and improving. Too often nowadays, praise is given to students who are putting forth effort, but not learning, in order to make them feel good in the moment: “Great effort! You tried your best!” It’s good that the students tried, but it’s not good that they’re not learning. The growth-mindset approach helps children feel good in the short and long terms, by helping them thrive on challenges and setbacks on their way to learning. When they’re stuck, teachers can appreciate their work so far, but add: “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.”
I was putting forth effort but I wasn’t examining what I had tried nor was I looking at what to try next. Yes I tried. Yes I put forth effort. But, despite all this effort, I continued the cycle.
Breaking the Cycle
Carol Dweck discusses how praising effort doesn’t break the failure cycle:
Recently, someone asked what keeps me up at night. It’s the fear that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement. In other words, if you want to make students feel good, even if they’re not learning, just praise their effort! Want to hide learning gaps from them? Just tell them, “Everyone is smart!” The growth mindset was intended to help close achievement gaps, not hide them. It is about telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.
I also fear that the mindset work is sometimes used to justify why some students aren’t learning: “Oh, he has a fixed mindset.” We used to blame the child’s environment or ability.
Must it always come back to finding a reason why some children just can’t learn, as opposed to finding a way to help them learn? Teachers who understand the growth mindset do everything in their power to unlock that learning.
To break the cycle praising effort isn’t enough. Instead, help the student to examine what went wrong and plan to try again looking for success.
Failure needs to be a step in moving toward success. Whenever we try something, there is a chance of failure, especially when pushing oneself to try something new. As part of moving toward success, failure helps us learn what doesn’t work in this particular situation for this person. One might not get it right the first time. Or, in the case of my run, it depends on how I frame things. If I was training for competition, my run wasn’t a good run. However, if I frame it as part of developing and living a healthy lifestyle, the run was great.
Today I failed but it was worth it!
Things to Think About
How do you plan for success? Do you plan for success?
Are you looking at the bigger picture and the particular? How do they support your plan for success?
As an educator, are you praising effort or helping students to move toward success?