Success through failure

The “Review” section of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal contained an interesting short article by Ken Bain, titled “Flummoxed by Failure – or Focused,” which was primarily about the un-fixed nature of intelligence.  Most people are just about as smart as they think they are or believe they have the capacity to become.  In order to learn difficult things, you must be able to overcome failure (see it as a temporary setback) and keep moving forward with the expectation that you will eventually figure it out. 

In other words, you need to be resilient.  And not only is intelligence a more flexible, malleable quality than previously thought, but it also turns out to be less important to academic success than resilience is.

The idea of “lifelong learning” has intrigued me for about 15 years now.  Not in the sense of recreational programs for senior citizens, nor in the sense of professional development seminars aimed at keeping job skills current – but in the sense of perpetual curiosity and continual, purposeful learning.  Whenever I read about artists and inventors, I’m struck by their insatiable desire to learn, and I wonder if somehow establishing such a culture of lifelong learning within a company or society at large would nuture a parallel culture of innovation.

Because I also am a huge fan of Pixar films, I noticed several years ago that the company had an in-house “university” offering an array of courses for all employees.  Randy Nelson, the former “Dean” of Pixar University, is now the “Dean” of Apple University.  I am in awe of his wisdom and insights regarding learning, creativity, and innovation.  If you’d like to find out more about Pixar University and Nelson’s approach to in-house “training,” several articles and interviews are out there online (for example, this New York Times article).

While writing a conference paper a couple years ago, I stumbled across this video clip of Nelson talking about his work at Pixar.  Two things jumped out at me right away, one of which is relevant for this blog post. 

First, let me say a few words about the item that isn’t.  It concerns the idea of “collaboration,” which is very relevant for my teaching and possibly for anyone working on large creative projects.  Engineers in industry work on teams, but Nelson’s concept of how teams should function is quite different from the way “teamwork” is commonly understood.  I’ll post on this topic later in the week, actually, because it’s something I want to explore in more detail, and writing is often my best avenue for discovery.

But back to the idea of resilience.  The other thing Nelson says in the video caught my attention because it runs so counter to the fear of failure that most of us have internalized.  He says:

The core skill of innovators is error recovery, not failure avoidance.

“Error recovery” is an interesting concept, because the larger culture certainly does not tolerate failure very well.  But failure (or, more specifically, analysis and then remediation of failure) is an important part of learning – especially for “innovators.”  When you’re involved in creative work, there often is no road map, no “best practices,” and no way to chart your path . . . except through trial and error. 

My job teaching future engineers has led me to the work of Henry Petroski, who writes frequently on the history of design.  More specifically, he highlights failure analysis and the crucial, yet undervalued and misunderstood, relationship between learning and failure.  I had never really thought of how important it is to fail well until I read his work.

Failure is not merely a mistake; its scale is larger than that, as is its associated cost.  Our fear of failure stems quite understandably from its disastrous consequences.

Despite the fact that every toddler falls many times before learning how to walk, getting up again doesn’t come so easily to most adults.  Internalizing the resilience to recover from failure requires practice, and unfortunately the only way to acquire that practice is to fail.

To err is human.  That much may be beyond our control, but how we respond to our errors is something we can take charge of.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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3 Responses to Success through failure

  1. Karen spivey says:

    I think you’ve really hit upon something here. Just think of all the innovations that were failures, like post it notes (failed glue). And probably many, many recipes! If we don’t make mistakes we don’t get a chance to discover something new. Even evolution is pretty much based on mistakes in the genome. Good thing to remember for us “perfectionists” out there. Perfection is a kind of death, really, when you think about it!


  2. Pingback: Randy Nelson on Learning and Working in the Collaborative Age | Edutopia | Katherine Wikoff

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