Reclaiming failure is about owning failure – making failure work for us instead of being something to fear or avoid. By understanding how failure works, and talking through tactics for changing our relationship with failure, we can learn faster, grow more, and achieve things we might not have even attempted before.
You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space. – Johnny Cash
It’s the summer of 2014. A group of strangers gather in a classroom in the upper part of the Pepperdine University campus in Malibu, California. Over the next week, these adults will cut vegetables, play with play-doh, program and play video games, explore a virtual world, and build robots out of legos. This is Cadre Camp – the one-week, intensive, face to face orientation and kickoff to the Master or Arts in Learning Technologies program, lovingly refereed to as MALT by its fans. The MALT program is a graduate degree targeting people who work in education, training, or other contexts where learning and technology come together. It is designed to produce change in education through the disruptive effects of technology.
I graduated from this program in the third cohort in 2001. The in 2003, I came back as an adjunct faculty to specifically work with Cadre Camp. By 2014, Cadre Camp had evolved somewhat due to advances in technology, but at it’s core the idea was the same: The creation of a technology-enhanced course that would disrupt students’ thinking about how people learn, while providing an experience that would help strangers develop a platform of community that would help them get through a year-long masters program.
There were many notable activities and projects that were part of this experience. However, the backbone of the experience was the Lego Robotics Challenge. The students were given the components to build a functional robot out of Legos, and told some basic information about how the parts functioned. They were told that they must build a robot in a team of 3-4 people that would solve a puzzle or complete a challenge. Each challenge would require the robot to move and interact intelligently with its environment, and so the teams, in a matter of a few days would have to learn to put the legos together with motors and sensors, but also to program each robot so that the motors and sensors would work together to accomplish the task.
My favorite part of the week was the second day of camp. This is the day that students would come back from their break to find a massive pile of legos dumped into the middle of the floor of the classroom (we would use a 25 gallon storage tub to keep the pieces in), surrounded by several smaller tubs containing sensors, motors and the NXT bricks. The NXT brick was about the size of two decks of cards stacked together, and had a few buttons, connectors for motors and sensors, and a small LCD display. This was the brain and the body of the robot. Everything attached to this tiny computer; motors, sensors, and all of the parts that made up the robot’s physical body. Students would write the program on their computer, and then transfer the code to the NXT brick to be run.
On the second day of camp, students would sit wide-eyed while I explained the lego pieces, previewed the software for writing the program, and explained the challenge. The challenge itself was always built around a theme, which was different for each year. The theme was designed to spark students’ imagination and draw them into a narrative – it was sort of an invitation to play with us for the week. Some of the previous years’ themes were “Lord of the Rings”, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, “Mars Rescue”, and “Ninja Warrior”. This year the theme was “Goonies” (one of my favorite movies). The challenge itself involved getting a Goonie (a Lego minifig) through a series of obstacles that were vaguely reminiscent of scenes from the movie, and that ended with a long slide into a cave with a pirate ship. After I finished explaining, I’d tell the students to get started. At this point, their reactions ranged from excitement to frustration at the lack of instructions, to complete bewilderment. A few hours into this project, and most groups has realized that this was going to be even more difficult than they had imagined.
Throughout the next few days, with times interspersed with sessions on learning theory and graduate level research, students would build, program and test their robots. Saturday morning was the “due date” for the projects, and also the time when we would invite alumni from the program to come, meet the cohort, and cheer for the “running of the robots”. Teams would work late into the night on Friday, tinkering with their creations, testing them, and then tinkering some more. About 15% of the teams would end up starting from scratch on Friday night. A much smaller percentage would go back to their rooms after dinner, confident that they would be successful in the morning. More than a few students would have to be ushered out of the room around midnight, begging for more time to figure out the problem. The project produced high levels of engagement, and high levels of frustration among students. Some half-jokingly claimed to have Lego-PTSD, even years later.
When it came to Saturday morning, the students would show up, usually wearing their matching MALT T-Shirts, and nervously tinker with their robots. Alumni would arrive from all over Los Angeles, and sometimes more remote locations, to watch and cheer, and offer their encouragement to the current students. Then the show would begin. One by one, the students would carefully place their robots on the booby-trapped, pirate-themed Goonies obstacle course, and press the button that would run the software they had stored in the robot’s brain. Everyone would crowd around while the robot tried to accomplish the task. Sometimes they would just fail. Other times, the robots would self-destruct in a magnificent explosion of plastic bricks. Occasionally, although very rarely, they would successfully complete their mission. No matter the outcome, everyone clapped and cheered. It always started with the alumni, but by the end of the show, everyone would join in, realizing that these “failures” weren’t a bad thing at all. While there were a few robots in my 15 years with the MALT program that were successful in completing the task, the vast majority of them were unable to complete the task without human intervention. This was by design. While the challenges were technically feasible, they were designed to be just a little out of reach for the average novice robot builder.
You see, if the tasks were easy to accomplish, then the students would focus on the successful results. However, when the students failed to successfully accomplish the task, they were forced to look elsewhere to validate the experience. Throughout the week, the faculty and alumni mentors were very intentional about redirecting students’ attention to the process they went through in as they worked toward the specific product. The process, as we called it, refers to the journey that we go on as a learner. So often in learning situations, we get so focused on what we are trying to accomplish that we lose sight of the reason we are doing it in the first place. If our process is good, and we are paying attention, then the product or end result is actually less important than we might think.
So with failure, it’s good to remember that it is just part of the process. We might have a goal. That goal gives us direction and a context. However, the goal itself is not as valuable as the process, growth and challenge that we go through in the striving for that goal. Here’s how I look at the concept of “process” versus the importance of the “product”, or the “goal”: Think about going on vacation. It’s true that the destination is important. Let’s say we want to go to New York on vacation, and we live in California. We could fly to New York, and we would get there very quickly. We would have more time to enjoy in the city, and it would be simple to plan. Or, we could plan an epic road trip. We could pile into a car, get uncomfortable, pack a bunch of snacks, and see the country. It would take a long time. We might get lost. But we would see so much and experience amazing things along the way. Sure, New York might just be a blip in the timeline of the trip. Funny thing is – even if we didn’t make it to New York for whatever reason, the value of the trip would still be massive. I don’t even want to talk about missing my destination when we are flying.
So the difference between a “process” focus and a “product” focus is a little like that vacation. When we focus on the process, we still have a destination in mind, but the journey becomes infinitely more important, and infinitely more useful. Failure might be part of that process. Our process becomes more valuable the more we can approach it with intentionality, allowing it to shape our work and give us direction for our future efforts. Mindfulness during the process and metacognitive work during and after the process can dramatically improve our learning and growth as a result. It’s true that failure doesn’t have to happen for this to work – we might make it to New York. It’s just that often we miss out when we don’t honor the value of efforts that aren’t successful, or when we don’t pay attention to the road we took to get there.
I want to very explicitly note that the origin of this Lego Challenge is the work of Gary Stager with Seymour Papert. Gary’s ideas have influence my own thinking in ways that can’t be measured. Gary’s work is monumental and significant, and should absolutely be followed. See www.constructingmodernknowledge.comand also his book, Invent to Learn.If you want to be a great teacher, do what he says.
I love sports. I can’t think of many other activities that test the limits of a human the way that athletic competition can. When you see someone like Mondo Duplantis set the National High School Record for pole vault at 19’1” (2017), it’s an amazing feat.
The video above is from the 2018 European Championships, but I like the slo-mo view. I love watching the sequence as he completely inverts his body, clinging to a long, skinny pole, flying almost 20 feet in the air. What an achievement. I was watching the YouTube clip of this event, and YouTube was nice enough to cue up another video when this one ended. The next video to play was a history of Mr. Duplantis’ pole vaulting career, starting at a very young age, and a very short bar . How many times do you suppose he failed to clear the bar? Just guessing – out of every attempt at a pole vault, do you think he has more successes, or more failures?
The point is this: In certain contexts and activities, failure is viewed in a much healthier way. Sports is one of those contexts, except in sports we often call it “practice”. We often say “Practice makes perfect.” without really thinking it through. Let’s unpack that for a second — if we practice (fail) enough, then we will perfect what it is we are trying to do (succeed). Every failure is an opportunity to move closer to our goal, as long as we make that failure work for us. In sports, we have managed to develop a mindset that facilitates that process. If we can develop a similar mindset in other areas of our life, then we can “practice” instead of failing and giving up.
In an October, 2019 article published in the Harvard Business Review, authors Dashun Wang and Benjamin Jones describe a research study in which they tracked the progress and career trajectory of scientists for 10 years following either their success or failure to receive major grant funding for their research. They found that those who received the grant funding showed more progress in the short term, but in the long term the “failure” group had just as many significant publications as the “success” group. What’s even more interesting is that they found that the “failure” group “…produced work that garnered substantially higher impacts than their narrow-win counterparts.” In other words, the work of the “failure” was equal in volume, but ultimately more important that that of the “success” group. In the article, they attribute this to the screening effect, which means that the act of failing removes the weaker candidates from the pool early on, and that those who persist despite their early failure are actually stronger candidates for success. I’d argue that the work of rebounding after the early failure is, by itself, a factor in the later success of these subjects. These scientists aren’t surviving just because they are good – they are being made better through the act of surviving.
The takeaway here is that failure doesn’t have to be fatal. At a minimum, our ability to survive through failures reveals something about us, that we have the strength and ability to be something greater. Moving through a failure, learning from it and processing the reasons why, also gives us a toolset that could give our work a level of depth and significance that it might not have otherwise.
One thing about failure – at least most of the time – is that it isn’t permanent or fatal. Of course there are exceptions. You’re probably thinking of something heinous involving great bodily harm, the permanent destruction of property, or a catastrophic end to a relationship. I’m sure there are others. However, I’m also reasonably confident that (1) These types of failures constitute the vast minority of failure opportunities we have in our lives, and (2) in some cases, flipping the right switch can limit the impact, or even the likelihood that these failures occur in the first place. So, for the sake of understanding failure in our quest to make failure our own tool for success, can we say that failure isn’t permanent or fatal?
Think about learning to ride a bike. Most of us start out with a tricycle, or maybe with one of those scoot bikes, where both feet easily touch the ground while you are in the saddle. The scoot bike is a great first step, and full of — wait for it — failures. What’s the objective? Balancing on two wheels. Watch a kid do this sometime. They will push off with one or both feet, lifting them into the air, and just for a moment… balance on two wheels. Then, gravity and a lack of skill takes over, and the bike tilts slightly to one side, forcing them to put their feet down. COMPLETE AND UTTER FAILURE, LITTLE KID. Just kidding. Well, sort of. Nobody learns to balance on a bike like that the first time. Add to that the fact that one of those little things can’t even go fast enough to benefit from the gyroscopic effect that makes it easier to stay balanced on a regular bike. However, it’s worth noting here that the entire purpose of this bike is to allow the child to tinker with, and get a feel for balance with almost no risk at all. Thus, the child fails over and over, and in the process they learn to balance. If upon putting their feet back down the first time, the child stepped off the bike and said, “Well, I tried and I failed. Time to move on,” they’d be laughed right out of preschool. Ridiculous, I know. Obviously, they don’t see it that way and everyone knows it’s just baby steps in the learning process. After a while, the kid learns to balance good enough that we decide they are ready for training wheels.
If you think about it, every time a training wheel touches the ground, it’s a failure. It is a failure with almost no consequences, and a frequency that is too high to even bother tracking. However, each and every time a training wheel touches the ground, the rider learns a little. How much they learn is mediated by things like how much attention they are paying, the height of the training wheels relative to the back wheel of the bike, and so on – but the learning is happening. Now, there are different schools of thought on how to proceed. Some parents, I’ve found, slowly raise the height of the training wheels so that over time, the rider needs them less and less until they become simply a psychological support, touching the ground only occasionally. I think this was definitely me for my oldest kid. Other parents wait a while, and then one day they just get bored, take them off, and push the kid down the middle of the street, yelling at them to just pedal as fast as they can. Kid number two went something like that for me, as I recall. By the time I got to number seven, I think the official strategy I endorsed involved not ever tightening the training wheel bolts, and watching them get progressively more wobbly (and less useful), until one finally fell off, and then saying something like, “See? You didn’t even need the training wheels.”
Whether we are learning to ride a bike or doing almost anything else, chances are good that most of our failures are not, in fact, permanent or fatal. Why does this matter? Well, it matters because this limit to the term of our failures means that we can keep trying. It also means that even in cases where a failure might be more permanent if left to its own devices, we can keep this in mind and possibly control that factor on purpose. Just like riding a bike, our failures can become things that happen, we learn from them, and then we move on. The important thing is not letting the idea of our failures prevent us from engaging in the cycle of learning from them.