Failure is GOOD

The other day I was biking to the office and was listening to an interview by Angela Duckworth, author of the great book Grit, which is one of my recommended reads in the “Books” section of Office of Cards (buy it here), and she mentioned something she wrote in her book that I had not thought about too much when I had read it but, now that I have a 10-month-old daughter who is learning everything, it made me think deeply about how our mind works against us sometimes, and how, if we are not aware of it and don’t learn how to control it, we end up being penalised in our lives.

The point Dr. Duckworth makes is about persistence after failure: why do some people abandon what they are trying to accomplish after a few attempts and some relentlessly keep trying until they master the task?

She takes an interesting angle, trying to identify where the grit of trying until we succeed comes from in our development.

The example she takes is that of a baby learning to crawl, it came to mind and relates to me now because my daughter is in that phase. Babies don’t know how to do anything, but have desires and wishes. They want that toy, that ball, that phone they see you play with when you are next to them. But until they are 7/8 months old, all they can do is stretch their arms, they don’t have spacial awareness and control of their bodies to know how to get to a point that is further away than their arm reach.

So what do they do? Sometimes they cry out of frustration, but sometimes they start trying to do something. They toss themselves to the floor, trying to see if they get any closer… long story short, it took my daughter 2 months from the first time she tried to physically grab something out of reach (and that was a headbutt to the mattress se was on) to a few days ago, when she covered more than 2 meters to reach the toy she wanted.

This is two months of trying every day for 4 to 6 hours with no break. Two months where most days, at least half of them, it was headbutt after headbutt, making no meaningful movement. Do you know of adults who practice something, failing every day, with such discipline? I do, it’s world class athletes, musicians, doctors… yes, world class comes with relentless and continuous practice, even if it means constant failure. #BePrepared

Given that all babies eventually learn how to walk, the point Dr. Dcukworth makes is: babies are better than adults at dealing with failure and not letting go of a goal simply because they can’t accomplish it… yet. This is their spirit: “it must be possible somehow, and I’ll keep trying until I succeed”.

So, what happens to us when we grow up? Why do so many of us develop self-limiting thoughts that make us abandon things that would do us good, simply because they are seemingly unachievable when we start trying?

Dr. Duckworth has a theory which I think is right, and that is: we develop insecurity when people around us start correcting us. Think about it, kids trying to crawl can’t even understand what the parent is telling them, and even if they could it would mostly be words of encouragement in that case.

But what about the 4 year old who is trying to light the carpet with a match and the parent sees them do that. Let’s imagine this scenario and think about 2 possible ways of dealing with it:

1- the parent starts screaming “NOOOOO”, then catches the arm of the kid, slaps his face and sends him to his room with no dinner and no games for a month (I am being a bit extreme here, but you see the point);

2- the parent says a firm “NO” and then sits down with the kid to tell him why that would have been a disaster. In doing so, he takes another match and asks the kid to light a piece of paper on the terrace, away from anything flammable, in a metal bin, and tells the kid to put his hand one metre above the burning paper, where he can feel the heat but no pain. And by doing this, he explains that a burning carpet would have lighted the drapes and the the whole house, causing a lot of damages and possibly injuries to people he loved.

In scenario 1 the kid would be frightened at first, and then angry, but most of all puzzled. What was the problem? Ok, daddy did not want me to light the carpet, but why? No clue, nobody told him. So, what do you think his attitude would be the next time he sees his dad getting upset as something he’s doing? Yes, right, he will stop doing it out of fear of another punishment. And if the parent does this long enough, the kid will start developing chronic fear and insecurity that will pervade his attitude towards the unknown (lighting the carpet was, and still is, unknown to him) and he will prevent himself from doing something he never tried out of habit, even when his parents are not there to punish him. Or maybe he will become a rebel and burn stuff in his teen years to compensate. They may balance out in the long term, or maybe not, but the point is: the environment around the kid has created a construct of self-limitation that the kid will carry over to his boyhood and adulthood.

In scenario 2 however, there is no unknown. The kid is told, and even shown, calmly, what the problem was and what the consequences would have been. This has 2 benefits:

1- they will learn how to think in terms of actoins-and-consequences instead of actions-alone (and this will make them masters of #PlayTheLongGame in the future); 2- they will not be afraid to try new things because there is nothing to fear. I am not naive and I know this might sound risky, but think about this: are you, as a parent, going to be there all the time to make sure your kid makes sound decisions? No, so your best bet is to make sure their decision making framework, the one you help shape, is good and it’ll work well when needed. For this reason so many schools are now starting to use the Montessori approach (see more about it here). In a nutshell, it’s much better to allow kids to discover things on their own by providing just a safety net in case of need than teaching them and directing them in the learning of things, not only because discoveries stick to memory a lot more than teachings, but also because in that way the kid is encouraged to explore with no fear of punishment, letting their curiosity take them where they want to go.

This is a similar point to that best selling author Carol Dweck makes in her book Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential (another, strongly suggested read – get it here). If you do not know how to do something, don’t say “I don’t know how to do it”… just add a little word at the end of that sentence, so little, and yet so transformational: YET. Focus on WHY you want to do that thing and, if you want it badly, if it’s something good for you, something that can help you achieve your goals, don’t moan, and just go. Go carefully of course, plan if needed, but, like the kid who wants the toy, do something. #OwnYourLife

Back to the point of this article, and to conclude, think about your fears. Think about your habits and what you do and/or are afraid to do and think about if that is helping you, or preventing you from, achieving your goals.

For most things in life, there is really nothing to fear. Consequences are preventable and manageable in most cases, if you have a solid plan that covers all the bases #BePrepared.

Remember what Ray Dalio says in his book Principles (I know, three books in a post? But, hey, they all refer to the same point and, if it was my decision, these three books would be part of the curriculum of every kid on the planet! – get the book here): Pain + Reflection = Progress. So, if you want to grow, if you want something you can’t get today, you need the pain and you need to reflect on what caused your pain to adjust your actions and get closer to your goals. And grow, and learn, and develop, and get fitter, stronger, smarter…

This is why failure is GOOD 🙂 

Do you want to go for that promotion? A salary raise, a reward for your hard work? Don’t just go and ask, plan your way to it. Talk to people, understand the process, who makes the call, make sure your deliver great work… the promotion will be the consequence of your actions, not a simple thing you ask and get. And this is why it is important to think in terms of cause and effect and consequences of actions. Maybe your parents or teachers taught you that, maybe not. It doesn’t matter really, what matters is what you are going to do about it. NOW 🙂

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D