The liberating power of failure
The title seems oxymoronic doesn’t it? For people who don’t understand how to harness failure, learn from it, stand back up, and lean forward, that is most certainly the case. I have espoused the benefits of practicing and failing in a safe environment for over fifteen years. But I am not the only evangelist of taking stock of and learning from failure.
I’ve now realized that we are all a combination of failure and success. Like experiencing joy and pain, without one, we’d never know another. Fredrik Eklund
A very partial list of evangelists who “get” the power of failure
Roger Schank, Professor and Author at Northwestern University – “True learning doesn’t happen until you practice and fail in a safe environment.”
Fredrik Eklund, the Nation’s #1 real estate broker and star of Bravo TV’s “Million Dollar Listing New York” – “…I hadn’t yet come to understand that failure is inevitable if you want to be wildly successful. I’ve now realized that we are all a combination of failure and success. Like experiencing joy and pain, without one, we’d never know another.”
Robert Herjavec, Entrepreneur, Founder of Herjavec Group – “Plan on being a lifelong learner. Because you need to be. And you will need to know how to bounce back from time to time. Among all things that will happen when starting out as an entrepreneur or a professional or salesperson, here’s one you can count on: you will make mistakes.”
Malcolm Gladwell, “Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.”
Ellen Degeneres – “When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.”
Winston Churchill – “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
There are plenty of similar quotes from many other people espousing analogous sentiments on failure and its benefits.
Businesses who have failed and turned it around
What about businesses? What differentiates good from great companies? Two core elements are resilience and the ability to learn from mistakes.
Delta Airlines filed bankruptcy in the mid-2000s based on intense competition and fuel pricing. In 2013, 120.4 million passengers boarded Delta planes, more than any other airline.
Lego lost money the first time in 1998 because of intense competition from video games. A new CEO, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, took over in 2004 and was insightful enough to see the power of merging Lego toys with popular entertainment brands (Marvel, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc.) to make Lego the most profitable toy manufacturer in the world.
Starbucks was expanding too fast in the 2000s. By late 2008, net income had fallen, cutting Starbucks’ stock price in half. Former CEO, Howard Schultz returned and turned the company around.
Want more business case studies on failure, check out: “The Biggest Business Comebacks of the Past 20 Years” (Fast Company)
The red thread in all of these examples is that while failure can be a setback, it doesn’t necessarily signal an ultimate demise. Know that mistakes and failures are going to happen. But also know that true learning happens when we practice and fail, even though it may be temporarily painful.
Practicing to fail makes perfect
In my book, On-Demand Learning, I saw an emerging trend of self-service in the world and a need for it to integrate into the way people learn. The notion is, “I can bank 24 hours a day, I can scan my own groceries, I can pump and pay for my own gas, I can check in at the airport, and so many other things on my own, why can’t I learn when I want to?” That “on-demand” trend is growing massively as learners get more savvy and the technologies such as mobile are more ubiquitous.
True learning doesn’t happen until you practice and fail in a safe environment, Roger Schank
One of the other key tenets of the book was based on Roger Schank’s book, Virtual Learning. He states, in essence, you don’t truly learn until you practice and fail. This is so true if you think about it. The old axiom says, “Practice makes perfect,” but to put a finer point on this, learning doesn’t really happen until the failure occurs with it.
That is why at the tender age of 52, I can still ride my unicycle like I did I learned how to ride when I was 10. When I was first learning, I couldn’t even sit on the seat, without hugging a tree or a wall. Eventually, with enough failing (or rather falling), I was able to pedal several feet successfully. Most unicycles are not chain-driven, so you have to pedal non-stop until you get to the point where you can rock back and forth. Finally, I was able to go long distances and even delivered papers on my route on it.
Watch a gamer
With the advent of web-based, mobile, gamification, and other technologies, learners are equipped perfectly to practice and fail in a safe environment. This helps drive real learning that sticks. If you watch people who play video games, at each level in a game, the players work through challenges, and movements, maps, actions, etc. Soon, they learn from previous actions how to navigate each level and progress.
Malcolm Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in a field. Actually, it takes 10,000 hours of practice, failing, honing, more practice, more failing, more honing, ad infinitum. Even experts need to continue to practice.
How can you use this information to improve your training offerings?
- Offer chances for practice and failure
- Allow learners to repeat the practice and failure cycle as needed until they learn the task or skill
- Leverage the appropriate technology to enable self-directed learning
- Show learners their learning path
- Show learners their progress on the learning path (bars, badges, levels, points, etc.).
We live in an on-demand society. We live in a technology surround. We learning when we practice and fail in a safe environment. If you mash up these three tenets, you can create an extremely sticky learning vehicle.