By Ajay Jacob
When I was about 13 or 14 years old, my dad bought me a really nice acoustic guitar, found someone to teach me, and all went well for about three to four weeks until the skin on my fingertips started to split and bleed. Over the next few weeks as playing became progressively more painful, I began to lose motivation and eventually, in what was surely a great blow to the music industry, I gave up.
Looking back, I remember I was excited, had a great guitar and teacher, and should doubtless have pushed through.
So, what went wrong?
Perhaps it was a lack of resilience, a feeling of failure, or I just had a low threshold for pain. But really, I think it was almost entirely a problem of expectations. I was focused on the end goal but wasn’t prepared for the things I would encounter on the way.
As learning practitioners, we tend to place a lot of emphasis on the outcomes for a learner- and that’s not a bad thing. However, I think we also need to be more honest with our learners about the process. Learning anything new is hard- it involves setbacks, frustration, and failure. The more we’re open about this, the more learners are able to prepare themselves and as a result, are likely to stick with it when the going gets tough.
The great explorer Ernest Shackleton is said to have run the following ad in a newspaper when putting together a crew for one of his expeditions.
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.
The ad itself is likely a bit of an urban legend, but I think there are three things we can do better to not just take learners on the journey, but to also build resilience along the way.
Firstly, we need to normalize failure.
Our learning apps and platforms are often geared towards success, high scores, and leader boards. So when we’re doing well it seems like we have company, but when we fail it often feels like we’re failing alone.
What if we said instead- “you’re very likely going to struggle- but stick with it because the pay-off will be worth it.” or – “we noticed you’re struggling with this section- but don’t worry 40% of learners find this challenging…keep going.”
As we move towards increasingly digital forms of learning, I think this transparent approach is all the more important if we’re to help our learners achieve their goals.
Secondly, we need to go one step further and redefine the meaning and role of failure.
Notice in Shackleton’s ad he mentions the word success but doesn’t use the word failure. What I think he was implying was that even if they didn’t technically succeed, they would still have had the adventure of their lives. [Unless they died, of course.]
And finally, we need to help learners embrace failure.
This brings me back to my guitar lessons- anyone who plays the instrument knows that at some point in the learning process your skin tears, but eventually the tears heal and a new layer of skin grows over them which makes it easier to play.
So, what I thought was an annoying and avoidable side-effect was actually a pre-requisite in order for me to continue my learning process. If only I’d known that, I’d have been more likely to own that.
The truth is, if we’re going to set people up for success, we need to set them up for failure first.
As the great Michael Jordan once said: ‘I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’