We are a society that hates being wrong. We hate not knowing things the first time. We hate losing. We hate failure of any kind.
Why? Because we believe it says something about us- about our worth. Its just under the surface, but its a belief that many people hold dear when it comes to intelligence: You either have it or you don’t. You are born smart or born…you know…not so smart. When we mess up, its another check in the “not-so-smart” category.
Not all cultures feel this way, but we certainly do.
But this is not really accurate. We are starting to learn that built-in-intelligence matters less than perseverance.
Failure is messing up, doing the wrong thing, making mistakes. We all hate to fail. If we are honest, we would rather be right the first time.
So, Why is Failure Important for Learning?
- It breeds perseverance, which is vital for success. Early and easy success gives us the false impression that all learning is easy. It is not. Think through your own experiences- how many times have you been successful in a challenging endeavor without applying great effort? Whether it’s learning to bake bread, climb a mountain, or pass calculus, it undoubtedly took quite a bit of effort.
- Failure is one of the best ways to learn. Failure, when paired with perseverance, helps you learn more than just getting something right the first time. It makes you ask “Why?” It helps you slow down and puzzle through something challenging. Think of making muffins- if it goes swimmingly, then you are good to go. But if the muffins don’t rise, you are forced to ask what happened, and eventually learn the function of baking powder. Knowing this will impact all of your baking going forward.
- Easy lifting doesn’t strengthen your muscles, but heavy lifting will. When you make a mistake, when you reach the limits of what you already understand, you are finally doing the hard work of strengthening your brain.
A few ways we can help this lesson sink in on a daily basis:
1. Praise process and persistence over perfection.
Say “You really stuck with it until you figured out the whole word,” instead of “You got it! Great job!” And “I saw that you worked hard on that math problem, tackling it again and again until you really understood it.” instead of “You are so good at math!”
It’s subtle, but by going here with your compliments, you are placing value on the process- the hard climb to the top– rather than the product- reaching the summit. The reality is that life is much more climbing and much less summit. We have to learn to love the process, to see value in the process of getting there. All great accomplishments require great effort, and we need to teach our kids that their willingness to apply great effort is a sign of strength, not deficiency.
2. Tell the whole story behind the success of others.
Take, for example, Thomas Edison. The short story? He was a prolific inventor who held over 1093 US Patents in his lifetime, pioneering work in electricity, motion pictures, sound recording, and many others. The long story?
- There were times when he was extremely poor.
- There were times that he went years without figuring out a problem. He worked day and night, tirelessly, trying idea after idea. When asked one time if he was discouraged, after having so many failed experiments, he said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
- Even after he had experienced success, an explosion started a fire that spread to ten of his buildings- over half of his plant. The fire was so powerful that it could not be extinguished and he lost most of his work. His response? “Although I am over 67 years old, I’ll start all over again tomorrow.” Read the whole story here.
You see, it is tempting to look at some people and think that they are doing well because they are smart, or they have some advantage that we don’t.
But Edison believed that hard work and perseverance were what made all the difference. And his life, and life’s work, are a testimony to this truth. Let’s tell our kids the whole story, and give them hope in their trials.
It’s possible that after reading this post, you are tempted into thinking that hard work and perseverance must equal drudgery. But what if, instead, they add up to an inspired life that results in a deep sense of fulfillment? That’s a post for another day.