Learning to Fail

As we were talking over our family dinner a few weeks ago, one of my daughters mentioned a new segment they were learning in math.  I stiffened a bit, knowing that this new lesson was going to require learning for all of us.  (Those of you with elementary school aged kids may relate to this – the ‘new SWUN math’ our kids are learning has banished ‘carrying the one’ when adding, having been replaced by drawing blocks of 10s instead.  Personally, I pine for the old days – so much for progress!)

My husband asked how it had gone in class, and she proudly shared ‘I failed’, with a big grin on her face.  As we all stared at her a bit quizzically based on her apparent sense of accomplishment, she clarified – ‘Do you know what fail stands for?’  Thankfully she didn’t give us a chance to respond, since my interpretation wouldn’t have kept her smile shining quite so brightly – and quickly answered her own question.  “Fail stands for First Attempt In Learning”.

And I smiled too.  What a perfect sentiment for a 3rd grader.  Getting it wrong isn’t bad, it doesn’t make you dumb, and it’s not that you’re destined to get it wrong the next time.  It means it was your First Attempt – and In Learning from it, you’ll do better the next time.  The trick is – you have to learn from it.

Over the last few days this acronym has stuck with me and it’s reinforced how very much I’ve learned from my mistakes over the years – and in fact that when I make my biggest, most public gaffes, those lessons tend to be the ones that stick with me the most.  From botching my sales pitch in an early sales training class in front of the training team and department head, to hiring a manager who would go on to steal thousands of dollars from the company, to shortchanging the importance of over-communicating during a major team restructuring and layoffs which resulted in lousy team morale, infighting and missing our quarterly goals, I’ve learned a tremendous amount through my most important and often most public mistakes.

These learnings likely stick because they are oh so uncomfortable.  But getting to the other side of them, and examining what will go differently the next time is what makes that pain worthwhile.  Thankfully, I managed to learn from these tough lessons, though admittedly things didn’t always work out the first attempt post – failure.  There’s been plenty of learning, and more failure, from there to here.

As I’ve watched the public discourse over the last few months, one dynamic I’m particularly struck by is our leaders’ unwillingness to admit their mistakes.  Unfortunately, this is a bipartisan trait.  When our kids are watching – and let’s be honest, they’re always watching – this is not the example I want them to take away.  Particularly when you consider this recent insight – that an inability to accept mistakes and claim failure is also partly to blame for our shortage of budding scientists in this country – yikes!

So – perhaps we need to tweak the old adage, and when we learn from what we did well AND what we failed at, then maybe, just maybe, what got us here will in fact get us much of the way there.


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  2. Failure is so often misinterpreted.
    I have found we have been so afraid of failing, we don’t even start.
    I love Suzy Kassem’s quote:
    “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.”
    And if you start you have to be willing to fail… first attempt in learning!

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