When did you last embrace failure?

If it has been awhile, it might be worth trying it out. In order to be masterful or grow as a person or even raise children, failing is as critical as success.

Sure, failing is full of negative connotations: “you failed this test”, “you are a failure”, “failure is not an option”. What is failure really? It is simply not getting the expected results. In this light, then failure presents an opportunity for deeper understanding.

Here are some ways you can take advantage of failure.

I. Learning happens at the edge

Think of what it was like to learn to ride a bike. You got on it. You fell and scraped your knees. You learn. You try again. Eventually with a little help, encouragement, and practice you’re riding easily and naturally. It is in that moment of risking injury where that great leap of learning is possible.

But so often we are satisfied with just being good enough at something. For some things, it makes sense to leave it at “good enough”. Unfortunately, when all of life is just “good enough”, we lose our ability to grow.

Real learning requires challenge. Real learning happens at the edge of our ability. And thus real learning happens at the point where we might fail!

For example, we can drive decently, cook well enough (some of us), write reasonably… but what would it take to become better at it? Try driving in the crowded streets of Taiwan or cook a five-course meal for a party, or write and publish a book. Likewise, a big life requires a big challenge.

The point is not to arrive at greatness. The point is to live greatly through a never-ending push to the edge.

II. Masters seek failure

I had a “martial arts” instructor who is a master of his field. Sparring with him was a lesson in helplessness. However, what made him a master was his ability to learn exponentially greater than any student or teacher I know. What separates him from the crowd?

Asides from his dedication and hard work to his craft, he also had the ability to seek failure. He would often purposefully and intentionally puts himself in situations which challenged his abilities. He might spar using only his right jab with a student or he might work with professional fighters in other fields. World-class athletes must find ways to challenge themselves to continue their growth.

Studies into the nature of expertise show that taking on progressively more difficult challenges is what separates an “expert-learner” from a average learner (see Surpassing Ourselves).

If you want to be masterful, then find the nearest edge, push it back, and learn from it.

III. Children should be praised for pushing at the edge

Exploring the edge sounds good in principle, but failing is not well accepted by our culture.

In studying the performance gap in math between students in the U.S. and students in Japan, Stevenson and Stigler watched a Japanese boy struggle with drawing a 3-D cube on the blackboard for forty-five minutes. The boy made repeated mistakes much to the anxiety and discomfort of the researchers. The boy, however, was oblivious to this. Eventually he succeeded to the applause of the class (see Mistakes Were Made).

The researchers determined that American culture was far more likely to see math ability as innate rather than the result of hard work and learning through making mistakes. Later research showed that children who are praised for their efforts rather than their innate ability were far more likely to see mistakes and criticism as useful information.

It is hard to appear stupid, or face embarrassment in front of our peers, or let ourselves down, but those fears get in the way of reaching towards mastery.

IV. Give your failures a hug

Loving your failures can be difficult, but consider the injustice of not owning them, of not seeing them. Then consider what new powers or abilities you can develop by seeking out new challenges. So take a moment now, and thank all the times you learned from a broken relationship or a business idea that flopped or a design that failed. They deserve a hug.

Questions to reflect upon:

  1. In what area of your life would you like to develop more capability?
  2. What is the “edge” of your capability in that area?
  3. What learning is possible if you stretch yourself beyond your capability in that area?
  4. Will you embrace the learning?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in significant life challenges.

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