Failing To Success

Can you fail your way to success? Yes.

I was reading an article, Giving Good Praise about how to motivate people to work harder to improve their skills, instead of assuming that they “just aren’t smart enough,” which included this (lightly edited for capitalization) passage:

Failure in small doses is good. […] Advocates of game-based learning say one of its strongest attributes lies in a player’s ability to fail and start over without being stigmatized. Students learn as they go, getting better each time they attempt a task in the game. But the current education system leaves little room for failure, and consequently anxious parents often don’t tolerate small setbacks either.

“If you have little failures along the way and have them understand that’s part of learning, and that you can actually derive useful information about what to do next, that’s really useful,” Dweck said.

Well, Dweck hit a bulls-eye. The focus on games and failure and restarting and learning makes all kinds of sense to me.

There was a point in learning to code computer software, where I learned to accept that failure is normal and expected. I mean, I would fail literally dozens, even hundreds of times per day, every day. And each failure brought me a little closer to my goal.

If we think of each modification of computer software as creating a separate entity or “experiment”, 99.9% of those are failures, and the business of a coder is to keep nudging the program toward 100% success – or as close as we can get. They’re not “failures,” they are stepping stones.

Reminds me of an old story about Thomas Edison, who discovered – and eliminated – thousands of ways to not make a light bulb. I discovered many thousands of ways to not code software.

And this willingness to fail and learn and correct and repeat is what it takes to succeed in the STEM disciplines. It is these small failures, and the attempts to correct them, which drive the learning process.

It’s a good article, worth reading, but if you want just the gist, Dweck’s main point was to praise children for the work they do – not in abstract ways, such as “you worked so hard,” although that might not be a bad idea at times – but a bit more to the point where you are praising the method itself.

Any case, when I came to see failure as a natural part and even an aid to the learning process, I lost my fear.

Hat tip to an old friend from Pittsburgh, Lucy Hammond, for bringing this article to my attention.


1 thought on “Failing To Success”

  1. There is some work in psychology which highlights the difference between external rewards and intrinsic rewards, between doing good in one’s own eyes, and in doing good in the eyes of others. The enjoyment of these rewards seems to have a finite quality, which enjoyment can be had in only one of these two exclusive ways. You feel joy because either you decided you did a good job, or because someone else decided it. You may both have decided it, but squeaky wheel get the grease, or, in this case, the squeaky mouse gets the cheese.

    If you think of anything you feel good about (all these articles you’ve written probably serve as an excellent example), you will notice the joy you feel that they are here, on display. Did someone praise you for them? How would it feel if they did? I haven’t done so explicitly, but rather simply assumed that you feel you’ve done a good job. If it’s important to you what I think about the job you’ve done, feel free to ask. I don’t think it’s that important. You have a conscience to judge between right and wrong, and a mind to judge between good and bad, and when you use the details of every failure to improve the next attempt, and you eventually succeed, think about how it feels if someone sees that success and says, “Good job, Papa Libertarian!” It feels a bit patronizing to me. Praise does, I mean.

    I much prefer to see joy in others who experience that as a result of my work. They don’t need to tell me about it if I can see it. I humbly disagree with Katrina Schwartz that “Kids like direct praise.” They are trained, conditioned, and brainwashed to value themselves because of external praise, and this makes it appear that they like it. Perhaps, after such conditioning, they do like it, but reach deep into your soul and consider my argument above. Praise is a verbal extrinsic reward and it offers a provisional kind of joy (thanks to Brett Veinotte for saying “provisional” enough for me to understand this), rather than the deep and impervious kind of joy that comes from getting done what you intended to get done.

    So if we can’t encourage kids with external praise (or improve girls’ mathematics proficiency with it), what can we do instead? We can wait until they show us their progress in whatever directions they like to make it, and thank them for letting us see. Gratitude is more honest than praise.

    Thanks for writing all that, and reading all this. I hope we will continue helping each others’ minds to blossom.


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