Monthly Archives: February, 2013

Failure

Most of us have been taught to live our lives singularly focused on outcomes. We are a result oriented society. We worship winners and revile losers. With that as the context, is it any wonder that the majority of us are risk averse? Why do something if there is a chance we might not achieve our desired end? Who would want to be labeled a failure or a loser?

I remember an incident back in middle school. I had got a ‘D’ in one of my classes. It generated such anxiety that I doctored my report card. With a couple of well placed dots penciled in on the dot matrix printout I changed the grade from the ‘D’ to a ‘B’. I knew it was wrong, but the fear of failure was dominating. Even though my parents had never set any expectations for grades – they had always wanted me to just do my best – I had nevertheless internalized the stigma of failure from other social contexts.

The message we all, student or professional, get every waking moment is clear even if it is just implied: hit the target. It does not matter how. Anything less is not only worthless but it will bring negative consequences. What we fail to grasp is the fact that just as you cannot inspect quality into a product, you cannot test knowledge into a student. Trying to do it just fosters our present culture wherein we are all afraid to take chances and risk failure.

We must shift our focus upstream to the learning process. We must be taught how to learn beyond just what to learn. All of us have to understand how knowledge is built and then use that process to grow our own knowledge. That process, the learning cycle, is elegantly expressed by Dr. Shewhart and Dr. Deming: PDSA or Plan-Do-Study-Act. Its deceptive simplicity hides the profound impact it has had in growing human knowledge.

Make a guess at the solution to the problem you’re facing and plan a way to test your guess. Following the plan, actually do the test; carry it out. Study the result by comparing it against your guess. Do they match each other? How you act, depends on the answer. If the result matches your guess, you have confirmation of your guess. If not, you will need to modify your guess with the new found data and run through the cycle once more. Either way, you have increased your knowledge. There is no failure!

How many cycles it takes to understand the nature of the problem we face depends on how good our initial guess is. We must afford everyone the opportunity to run through as many cycles as they need without judging them as a success or a failure based on the outcome of any given iteration of the cycle. Doing so is a way to kill intrinsic curiosity and stop the learning process cold. If we want people to take risks, then we have to foster an environment of experimentation and cooperation.

Life is a journey, not a destination. — Ralph Waldo Emerson