Gimme some failure – part 2

I was good at school.

I’ve said that before and thought it was true. I typically said this in response to someone who didn’t test well in college or high school. I would reply with something blah blah blah and somewhere in there I would throw, “I was good at school.” As if it was a “talent.” As if it were a game. Thinking back on it, I think it was. For me.

How sad.

The things I was most afraid of doing badly (because they meant the most to me) – those were the things for which I would lower the bar. In undergrad I would start the semester off with less effort so that by the end of the course I was giving 100% of my effort and seeming like I had learned a lot. And I would get the A, thinking to myself, “Hey, I must be really good.” But I didn’t feel good. I didn’t earn my confidence in that field. I was just good at getting the grade.

Don’t get me wrong, it mattered to me that I did well. And a lot of the time I worked my tail off (like a ten page paper for my art history class that used thirty sources), but some of the time I didn’t. Deep inside I knew I was afraid of failing, and so I took the safe route (the lazy route). What would it say about me if I wasn’t good at my art all the time? I perceived mistakes and stumbling blocks as utter failure from which there was little recovery. It was devastating when I made mistakes. And this fear of error-making and disappointment in my lack of courage cycled around to whittle away further my self-confidence – making getting a good grade seem superficially all the more important. I knew my fears were doing a disservice to my education, but those fears still held me back. What was I really learning? How was I growing?

I hadn’t gained confidence in art making the way I gained it in other subjects. I didn’t challenge myself the way I did in my logic class, where I studied hours and hours on end to get the “A” on my tests. I earned that “A.” I knew I could do the job, earn the grade, and walk away from the class feeling good and never looking back. But with art? Well, that was my major. That was going to be my life. I had gone “all in” when I chose art and I didn’t want to lose.

So I got through undergrad. And I learned a lot. But not as much as I would have learned if I had mastered the true art of falling on my face. Of making mistakes and trying again. Of working hard and persevering. Sure I had persevered with so many other things – family relationships, personal development… but the art? Not so much. Luckily I smartened up by graduate school, when I knew it was time to fish or cut bait.

Wired magazine blog “The Frontal Cortex” by Jonah Lehrer recently featured an article – “Why Do Some People Learn Faster?” The article summarizes two kinds of thinkers: fixed mindset (“this is what I have got and I can’t change it”) or growth mindset (“I can work hard and do better at this and that and that and….”). I think now, having fully devoted myself to my education the last five years that I am slowly eeking over to the “growth mindset” side of things. And that is pretty exciting! I know now that the things which matter are usually the ones that scare me, make me uncomfortable, or make me angry when people call me out on them. So needless to say these days, those are the things I am focusing on. If it scares me, I should probably do it. Growth. Definitely my new mindset.

I urge you to check out this wonderful article by Jonah Lehrer. What kind of learners are you raising in your family? What kind of learner are you? What were you growing up? How do you respond to failure?

I find the topic pretty interesting. Hopefully you will too. This is worth the look!

Give me some failure!

One of the biggest gripes I have about education today is its emphasis on tests and grades. Oddly enough, as a teacher I relied heavily on grading. As a student, I was motivated by grades. I was “good” at school – I could get the A, I could write the essay, pass the test, apply the formula, memorize the historical dates. But most of the time I didn’t retain the knowledge on which I was tested. Worse yet, I didn’t see how much of this knowledge was applicable to my life.

Lucky for me, my family raised me to have a healthy concern for my character. My mother taught me to reflect on my choices and actions – how they influenced others, how they affected my reputation and my self-image. I learned to understand my feelings, to gain insight into the actions of others, and try to adjust to them. I believe this has made me a stronger person.

But in our society, grades typically win out over “character.” We base college admissions, hiring, and scholarship awards on it. In the end, grades just seem easier to judge than something as malleable as character. And in turn, these rewards encourage a focus on grades rather than an emphasis on a process of experience-based learning and growth.

As I read a post by Siobhan Curious called “Fail Better” today, her students’ stories sounded all-too-familiar.  Before graduate school, I wanted to get the grade. Don’t get me wrong – I worked hard. But the recognition for my hard work is what I wanted. I did not see much past that. I didn’t take risks because that would bring potential failure and I thought I had too much to lose. I wanted to please my teachers, to achieve the G.P.A. that would guarantee scholarships, college admission, and praise. Even now, I regularly ask questions at my job trying to ensure I don’t make mistakes. While sometimes this is admirable, it can also distract from the equally useful process of critical decision making. My actions become deferential – I don’t learn to rely on my own knowledge or judgment. I rely on others. My actions don’t support my decision-making ability. Often my actions undermine my independence. Over time, I have tied error-free achievement to my sense of self-worth; my self-confidence depends on the recognition I receive from others. I have perfected the art of mistake-avoidance, serving up a steady dose of self-abuse whenever I don’t excel or do something well. This is not a recipe for self-satisfaction. It’s a prescription for ever-present self-sabotage.

Though I learned from my social failures and from my family’s ups and downs, I didn’t learn from failure in school or in my passions. As an artist I have had to learn how to circumvent my perfectionism and desire for praise and allow myself to make mistakes and to learn from them. I have learned to push through my inability to move forward when I fear failure most. I try not to focus on blame or regret when I do fail. I don’t let myself wallow for too long before I move on. I respect my choices (even though they didn’t work) and try to decide how I could do better in the future. This new approach is painful. Difficult. It is lonely. I am learning to verbalize praise to myself – instead of expecting it from others. But learning to fail, to take chances, and to trust my inner voice is an exciting place to be. Because every time I feel like I’ve fallen backward, I can also see myself moving forward.

With this in mind, I would challenge you to read this article (cited in Siobhan’s blog post): What if the Secret to Success is Failure? by Paul Tough. How could you apply its ideas in your life? Would this be an approach you would like to see in education? Do you wish you were taught as a child using this method? What kinds of character do you have – tenacity? Generosity? Empathy? Perseverance? It is a great read – I hope you’ll take the time to check it out!