Tuesday, October 31, 2006

learning by failing faster

Of all the truths I teach, this is the one I believe and hate the most. Human beings are meant to be active and to be wrong more often than they are right. As a control freak, perfectionist I am not fond at all of this as a presupposition much less an absolute truth.

Of all the people I have learned from, the poet Milton and his doctrine of the fortunate fall got under my skin in the sneakiest way. Long after I have forgotten most of what I once knew about his poetry, I find it lurking about in my mind, pulling at the corners of new ideas. I believe that we are meant to be wrong and that's okay. I hate being wrong.

This morning I explained to a second year class of college business students that the world would require them to fail faster and, in order to prepare them for that, I was prepared to mark on one (safe!) scheme while providing feedback on a harsher, more real model. Their job as students should be to reach beyond their level of competency - to try stuff they cannot possibly do well and screw it up and try something different. Their failures don't hurt anyone (including them, when handled appropriately by teachers) - they provide a model for trying new things and acquiring new skills quickly.

Often, we go out in the world - and have to fail faster in order to learn. And it hurts. It is embarassing and difficult and it feels slow. It is much less satisfying than doing the tried-and-true with grace. It seldom brings applause or even a helping hand up. Yet it is the failed ideas that prove we are reaching for something new and genuinely different. That results in learning, and learning eventually leads to the grace of the tried-and-true.

Where is it safe for you to fail faster? Where are you trying too hard to succeed when all you really need to do is learn? Set out soft spaces to land and seek out people who will give you a hand up when you fall on your face - or your bum. Fail safely - but fail. Fail until you can laugh at yourself. And in that laughter, find the moxy and the fresh ideas that will allow you to fall again.

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