Monday, September 8, 2014

Learning by trying

Even though I wrote a book on immersive learning, one of the main premises of which is that failure is an excellent and meaningful way to learn, I still hate failing. Hate it.

I mean, come on, who likes failing? We like to win. We like to do well. We want praise and accolades and admiration, not a side-long glance that screams "do better next time" or being dismissed or worse, pitied.  Failing sucks, the consequences of failing suck, and all the "we learn the most from our mistakes" reassurances in the world don't really soothe the sting of failure. 

At the same time, we know on some level that it's true. We DO learn a lot when we fail. It makes us reflect, take stock. It makes us really look at and question our own behaviors. It makes us re-evaluate our decisions. Failure is without a doubt a teachable moment. 

I'm not talking about passive failure here. It doesn't count if you didn't actually try or if you quit. Failure without effort only teaches you that if you don't try, you can't succeed. Quitting is a completely different dynamic than failing and influenced by a number of things...quitting is a teachable moment on it's own and should supercede the associated failure. 

I'm talking about good old-fashioned "I gave it my all and it still wasn't good enough" failure. I've had a few of these in my life, as most of us have. Some of these failures taught me things about myself, some have taught me things about others, some about human nature. Some of the lessons were tough ones. 

I'm in the reflection phase of a big failure right now. This time it wasn't a personal failure; this was a process failure, a failure of a system...specifically, the legal system. 

I firmly believe you have to do what's right, even when you know you're up against the odds, even with high cost and high risk. When you know you're doing what's right, it makes the decision to try easy even if the task isn't easy. Sometimes you just have to tell the truth, even when no one believes you and even when it doesn't make things better. Sometimes you just have to jump in, try, and do your best.

This summer, my family made a decision to trust the legal system and confront a terrible situation. We knew what we were doing was right. We knew we'd have to listen to lies and that ultimately, someone who doesn't know us or anything about the situation would make a judgment. We lost. And it sucked. I want to wallow. I want to fight back. I want to scream at the universe and shake my fist in anger. I don't understand how liars win. I've spent so much time thinking about what we could have done differently. The truth is, we did our best. 

So what am I learning from this failure? I've dealt with liars and manipulators before, so charming and convincing that they were able to maintain their lies for years, hurting everyone around them. I've believed lies with all of my heart. Each time I finally realized the truth in those situations, I'd swear that I'd never be duped again. But never is a mighty long time and one thing I know I don't want to learn is to become so cynical and distrusting that I close myself off to hope, love and wonder. 

I'm seeing a similar situation here in Santa Barbara county. My dear friend Becca Claassen is fighting to make fracking illegal and she is up against the oil companies who have more money, more resources and some really charming lawyers. She's fighting against their lies; she's fight for what's right. She's fought hard and got Measure P on the ballot for November to let the voters choose. I'm so proud of her. It's hard to face the opposition every day, especially ones who have the advantage. It's hard going into a situation knowing that the odds are against you. It's hard to try when failure is likely. Even though we want to believe the David vs Goliath stories, the reason why that story is so compelling is that it's rare. 

The hard truth, the one I haven't wanted to accept, is that there are people out there who lie. Worse, a lot of those liars are so convincing that other people believe them. And truly horrifying is that people will lie to their own advantage, even when it hurts everyone around them and the people they love most. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't tell the truth. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't try, shouldn't stand up for ourselves, shouldn't do what we know is right. Even if David had been defeated, he was still better than Goliath. 

Sometimes it's not even about telling the truth or triumphing over lies. Last May, my then 6th grader Jackson participated in the Santa Barbara Math Super Bowl. Saying this kid loves math is an understatement, and it was his last year of being able to participate. The previous year, he had went with his team but didn't receive any awards. This year he was confident and excited; he had been practicing extensively for the entire year in preparation. During the awards ceremony, as they listed the 6th-1st place winners first in 4th grade, then 5th grade, and finally the 6th graders, my anxiety was growing. What if he didn't get an award? How would he feel about the effort he had put in? What would the lesson be if he had done his best and it wasn't good enough? As the names were read, I could feel his anxiety too. I'm proud to say our nervousness was for nothing; he ended up winning with a perfect score, the last name read. But it could have gone the other way, and what if it had? He would have been crushed and defeated and sad and angry. I'm sure he would have looked back on his efforts all year and questioned if he should have tried at all if the end result wasn't a victory medal around his neck. Some of his teammates, and surely most of the kids in that conference hall, had to face that reflection. I hope they learned from their efforts, not just from the end result. 

When I started Tandem Learning in 2008, the odds were against me succeeding. I knew it, but I felt like we could be successful and more importantly that I had to try. There were ups and downs and successes and failures, and ultimately with our acquisition 4 years later, I closed that chapter thankful for the journey. And I got a tattoo, a modified quote from Teddy Roosevelt

if she fails, at least she fails while daring greatly

We have to try. We have to risk failure. We have to know, on some deep level, that life is a marathon, not a sprint. We have to know that we can lose a battle and still win the war. We have to learn that sometimes, it's the trying, not the failure or success, that defines a person. It is in the trying and risking that we learn, not just in the success or failure. It's in the trying that we learn who we are.

1 comment:

  1. Totally with you on this. I'm weary of constantly reading "failure is good" stories written by people who don't appear to have any clue about risk or consequence. There's a difference between manifesting wisdom learned along the way vs. navigating a stubborn maze of incompetence. Failing is only "good" if it leads to some fulfillment of the self, which in turn helps us come to grips with the value of perseverance. Success is more of a path than a destination.