Learning from our failures

How “failing better” could be the most valuable lesson you learn this year.

by Brian Christian

It’s February, the graveyard month for all those resolutions you made when 2014 was in its infancy and you thought you could do things differently this year. More exercise? Less chocolate? I know you meant well but you may as well come clean—those good intentions have slid away, haven’t they?

Don’t worry: you’re in good company. In fact, the statistics are bleak: apparently only 8% of those who make New Year’s resolutions manage to stick with them—and the vast majority fall by the wayside within the first week. If you’re over fifty you’re almost twice as likely to slip back into your bad old ways as twenty-somethings who are less set in their habits, and if you make a resolution to eat or drink less the result is often that you actually end up eating or drinking more. The truth is that, whatever promises you might have made to yourself a month or so ago, the chances are that you will end 2014 as pretty much the same person who started the year.

There’s a simple clue to the reason for such widespread fallibility in the very name we give to such promises: New Year’s resolutions. The implicit point is that when we fall off—as most of us do—there’s no incentive for us to attempt to climb back on until the next new year comes around and we start from scratch all over again. This clearly isn’t the most sensible route to success. When our children are learning to walk they stand unsteadily, take a few faltering baby steps and fall down. Then they get up and repeat the process. If all is well, they continue to try and continue to fail until, after failing better with each attempt, they eventually master this tricky new skill. It’s a process all parents encourage. I cannot imagine that any mother ever thinks, “My poor little dear has fallen down; perhaps he shouldn’t try this awful walking thing again until next year.”

“…as parents and teachers, we do our children a disservice if we bubble-wrap them so protectively that they are never at risk of failure.”

One of the current buzzwords in educational circles is resilience or, as my American friends prefer to say, grit. It makes an appearance in almost every list of so-called 21st century competencies as one of the key characteristics that good schools must instill in their students in order to equip them to thrive in today’s fast-moving, ultra-competitive world. The idea is that the most successful people are those who learn how to cope with and eventually overcome adversity and that, as parents and teachers, we do our children a disservice if we bubble-wrap them so protectively that they are never at risk of failure.

It’s hard to disagree with what seems to me to be a fairly obvious point: learn to fail or fail to learn. I’m well into my sixth decade and I’m still making mistakes, but at least I’m now old enough to know that I can learn just as much—and probably more—from my failures as I can from my successes. I think it was Albert Einstein who said, “the person who never made a mistake never tried anything new,” and history is littered with examples of spectacular flops that led in time to giant leaps forward.

So if your resolution has just bitten the dust don’t be too down-hearted. Pat yourself on the back; at least you gave it a go. And don’t wait until next year to give yourself an opportunity to fail better. Baby steps, achievable goals and a well-defined action plan will certainly help you to get where you want to be—and above all, just remember that FAIL stands for a First Attempt In Learning. Better luck next time!

Brian Christian is Principal of the British School in Tokyo.

Image: flickingerbrad/Flickr

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