There is a Chinese proverb that failure is the price for future success. It recognizes the role of failures and mistakes in learning. For the individual this means that mistakes illustrate what you do not know. For organizations, mistakes show us that our practices and procedures are ineffective and need to be improved. When the things we do are correct and effective, we only have our knowledge reinforced. We already knew how to do something so there is no new knowledge. When the things we do are wrong or ineffective, we receive important feedback that helps us learn.
Feedback and Learning
Throughout life we are constantly learning and to do that we need feedback. Imagine you are learning to shoot basketball free throws blindfolded. Your friend walks you up to the line and faces you in the general direction of the hoop. No matter how much you practice, without seeing where each shot goes, you will not get better at free throws. This is because there is no feedback.
For every activity at work, school, or home we receive various forms of feedback that tell us whether what we are doing is correct and effective. Sometimes feedback is obvious in the activity itself. If we cook ourselves a meal, when we have the first bite we learn if we prepared it properly. Other times feedback comes from other people who tell us whether the activity was correct. Systems are set up to provide feedback, such as student evaluations of instructors in college and customer reviews on Amazon’s website.
We can think about the role of feedback in our learning. Suppose we know how to do an activity, and when we do it correctly, we receive success feedback. That feedback reinforces our knowledge or skill. It can build our confidence in our abilities, but it does not teach us something new. Failure, on the other hand, always teaches us that our solution is wrong. Every failure provides new knowledge. There might be times when we are unsure about the correct way and use a trial-and-error approach to finding the best solution. If we are lucky, we might find the right solution the first time, but most of the time this will not happen until we have had a string of failures. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb using a trial-and-error approach. Just finding the best filament material took thousands of tries. Each one was a learning experience that taught something about a property of the material tested.
Failure Is the Price for Future Success
Edison had little science at his disposal to tell him which material to use for the light bulb filament. He had to learn the properties of each individually. Thus, each failure was a payment along the way to achieving eventual success. Much of science works in this inductive way—continual testing to see whether something, such as a cure for a disease, can accomplish a goal. Knowing what does not work is part of the process to learning what does.
Failure serves the same function in other domains of life. Here are a few.
- Cooking. Coming up with a new recipe can involve many trials of adding/subtracting ingredients and trying different amounts.
- Computer Programming: Computer programmers will tell you that you learn nothing new from a program that works. It is when statements fail to do what was intended and are debugged that the programmer learns how the language works.
- Leadership: Particularly for new leaders, leadership can be a trial-and-error activity. If a leadership approach to a problem works, the leader had already mastered the skill. When a leadership attempt fails to achieve the intent, the leader learns how not to approach the problem in the future.
- School: Assessments are an important learning tool in education. When a student receives a perfect score on an exam, little new knowledge has been gained. When a student gets some answers wrong there is an opportunity to correct misconceptions and fill in the blanks in knowledge. A contemporary trend in education is to use gamification methods (the introduction of gaming elements into a nongame activity), and one is to use exams as a teaching tool. This is done by having students repeat the exam multiple times until they learn all the material.
To make the most of failure requires a new attitude that embraces mistakes as opportunities for new learning. The most innovative organizations have learned the importance of failure and learning from mistakes. To fear failure and do everything you can to avoid it means staying in a safe space where you know how to do everything correctly. By adopting the attitude that failure is the price for future success you will learn new things and increase the chances of future return on the investment in trying new things.
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