Failure Judo: Be Meta

Part 8 of the Failure Judo Series

Metacognition, in its simplest terms, means “thinking about thinking”.  Jocko Willink, in some of his writing on leadership as a Navy SEAL, talks about it as “stepping back” from the line of fire during a firefight.  Even though our natural tendency in many situations where success is vital is to fully engage in the activity at hand, doing so can sometimes prevent us from doing the sort of analysis that will make us successful at that activity.  Willink says that as a SEAL team leader, when he steps back from the line of fire, he is able to see the figure picture, and get a better view of what’s going on, what needs to happen, and the dangers that exist.

When we are trying to accomplish something, whether it is a high probability of failure, or even something that we have failed at already, there is tremendous value in “stepping back”, pausing, and looking at the bigger picture.  Here are some guiding questions:

1. What factors in success/failure do I have control over?
2. What factors in success/failure do I not have control over?
3. What emotions am I feeling, and how do those manifest as physical feelings?
4. What is the worst case scenario?
5. What are the key elements of success here?
6. Can there be a partial success?  What does that look like?
7. In terms of my own growth, what should I be paying attention to as I act?
8. Are there any factors that I can set beforehand to increase my chances of success?

Failure Judo: Tinker

Part 7 of the Failure Judo Series

Hands down, the best way to learn how something works is through a process I like to call tinkering.  “Tinkering” is an ability we are all born with, but it is taken away from us as we grow older by nervous adults and other authority figures who are worried about breaking things or messing things up, and through shame and bad logic, pass those worries on to us.

Sometimes called “hands on learning” or “experiential learning”, tinkering allows us to explore, try things out, and see connections between parts.  We learn about the thing we are tinkering with, but we also learn a myriad of other things – how to use our hands, tools, and properties of different materials.  In science, the term “scientific method” is used to make tinkering sound like something educated people do and to make it ok, but the process is the same:  Ask a question, form a hypothesis, test hypothesis, repeat.

Babies do almost all of their learning through tinkering.  They grab things, eat things, touch things, push and pull, slap and pound.  They develop a basic understanding of the world by interacting with it, which is much more useful and efficient than the adult method:  Think about it, stare at it with trepidation, and then ask if anyone knows the right answer. 

I’d like to encourage us all to embrace failure in this specific way.  Get your hands dirty, and play with things.  Take them apart and put them back together.  I’m not suggesting that you do something dangerous or cause permanent, irreversible damage.  However, there is a definite time for tinkering.  I used to let my kids take apart old TVs or electronic components when they stopped working, just so they could use the tools and see how everything worked.  The principle here is that we should try to tinker with things whenever we can reduce the cost of failure to very little, or lost zero — It’s a great way to learn and sharpen your skills.

Another example of tinkering that I use is in programming.  While I do some professional software development, when I am trying to learn a new technique, I often test it by creating a game or “just for fun” app.  There is no pressure that way, and I get a good feel for the new tool or technique before I have to use it in the “real world”.

The next time you are faced with something new, I encourage you to think about how you can tinker with it — remove the fear of failure, and play with it.  Engage in some purposeful messing around.  I think you’ll be happy you did.

Part 7 of the Failure Judo Series

Failure Judo: Practice

Part 6 of the Failure Judo Series

Watch this video of Michael Phelps swimming the 200M Fly at the Olympics:

Now watch this video of Olympic Figure Skater, Alina Zagitova:

Skilled swimmers and figure skaters aside, have you ever tried any of these things?  If you’d like to experience failure, then go ahead and try one (maybe depending on your climate).  Go ahead and do it – I’ll wait.

So… How’d that go?  Good?  I doubt it, but if it did go well for you, and you aren’t an experienced swimmer or skater, then you probably just found your calling in life.  If you are anything like me (and almost everyone), you didn’t look like Phelps or Zagitova.

“Of course I didn’t — I’ve never even practiced before.”

A normal, obvious response… in this context.  But in so many areas of our life, we expect to rise above failure without the practice, and without the time invested.  Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule – the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become an expert in that thing – applies to all of the things we do.  Now clearly we only have time in our lives to become experts in a few things, or maybe just one thing.    However, the point still stands that practice is how we often get better.

So what’s that got to do with failure?  What is “practice”, except guided, mindful, repetitive failure (usually with some safety precautions)? If you can figure out what you want to get good at, and find a way to practice failing, all the while paying attention to what you do that works and doesn’t, and maybe get a little guidance from a “coach”, then your chances of not failing when it really matters go through the roof.

Part 6 of the Failure Judo Series