Infest the Waters: A Blog About Design, Life and Making Stuff

Why Failure Is Good for You and Your Neurons

The Thinker: Auguste Rodin

I’ve finally gotten around to reading a book that I’m pretty sure my sister gave me for either my birthday or Christmas.  Either way, it’s taken me somewhere between 8 and 11 months to get to this book, which is pretty much par for the course.  At any given time, I usually have 3-4 books going, and sometimes it can take me years to get through a book because I get distracted or just lose interest in that particular genre.  Until I finally finished it about five years ago, I had been reading On the Road since the 90′s.  We’ll see how this one pans out, but at the moment I’m on pace to finish it well before the world ends in December.  Thank goodness for that.

The book I’m reading is How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, who, unfortunately for him, is probably now best-known for being fired by The New Yorker for fabricating facts in his recent book on Bob Dylan.  The book is all about how the brain makes decisions.  I’m not very far into it, but last night I read a passage that was–ironically, given Lehrer’s recent fate–about the importance of failure in learning.  The passage detailed a study conducted by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, in 12 New York City Schools with more than 400 fifth-graders.  The results of the study highlighted the roles that failure and how we administer praise to students play in the learning process and our neural development.

I’ll try to summarize the study briefly.

Two groups of students were given the same set of puzzles to complete.  After the students had finished, they were each given their score, and Group 1 was praised for their “intelligence,” while Group 2 was praised for their “efforts.”  The students were then offered two new sets of puzzles to complete and told that one set was easy and one set was hard but rewarding.  Overwhelmingly, Group Intelligent chose the easier set of puzzles and Group Effort chose the hard set of puzzles.  The conclusion Dweck drew from this is that when we praise children for their intelligence, the subconscious message they get is “Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”

She then gave them another set of puzzles that was designed for eighth-graders.  Group Effort worked very hard at the puzzles and some spontaneously remarked, “This is my favorite test.”  Conversely, Group Intelligent was easily discouraged, viewing their mistakes as signs that perhaps they weren’t very smart after all.  After the test, Dweck gave the students the option to view exams of kids that scored worse or better than them.  Group Intelligent chose to boost their self-esteem by viewing scores worse than theirs, while Group Effort chose to mine the work of those who did better than them for clues as to how they could improve.

Finally, Dweck gave the students a test that was very similar in difficulty to the first set of puzzles.  Group Effort raised their average score by 30%, while Group Intelligent’s scored declined by 20%.  The difference?  Group Effort performed at a higher level because they had challenged themselves, even if it meant failing at first, whereas Group Intelligent was so discouraged by failing that they regressed.

The interesting thing about the study is that it demonstrates how our neurons work.  It turns out that neurons require the “unpleasant symptoms of failure” (as Lehrer calls them) to revise their models and choose the correct answer next time.  This neural revision clearly played itself out in Group Effort’s final test scores.  It also demonstrates how praising children for their intelligence–something they have little or no control over–can actually be detrimental to the learning process.

I think about failure a lot.  As a musician and artist, I have tons of little failures on a daily basis–a wrong note here, an incorrect color there.  And apparently, according to this book, those mistakes–and my attention to correcting them–have been a huge part of getting me to the level of competence I enjoy today.  Nobody wants to fail, but I feel like I’ve developed a certain level of comfort with it, and it’s been critical to my success.

I didn’t always feel this way.  The message I got as a kid was that failure was not tolerated in my household.  In fact, I was so afraid to show my parents poor test scores (usually a C) in elementary and middle school that I took to forging my parents’ signatures on those tests before returning them to my teacher.  When I got older the message changed such that while failure wasn’t desirable, it was palatable if I had given something my best effort.  Still, when I was contemplating making the switch from music to engineering in college and then scraped through my first engineering class with a C+, my mom politely suggested that perhaps I wasn’t cut out for that field.  Luckily, my defiant teenage self took that as a challenge and decided to redouble my efforts.

UVA diplomaAnd that’s when I really started failing.  As far as humbling experiences go, attending engineering school might rank right up there with meeting the Dalai Lama.  There’s no better experience to help you get comfortable with failing than receiving a test back with a grade of a 12 (yes, out of 100).  And then getting another one.  And another one.  For three years.  Thank God for the curve.  (In all seriousness, though, it wasn’t quite that bad.  Okay, yes it was.)  But in the end, I learned a whole lot, I don’t regret a minute of that experience, and I now have a pretentiously large engineering degree hanging over my desk.

My point is this: failure forms the foundation of a meaningful life.  And as Dweck’s study underscores, it’s how we learn.  If every piece of art we created was a masterpiece, why would we bother to keep painting?  It’s the pursuit of perfection that keeps us going.  And it’s ultimately the risk-taking that’s enabled by a level of comfort with failure that allows us to succeed.  Don’t get me wrong–I know that it’s very hard to get past that fear of failure, especially if you’ve been indoctrinated with the belief that failure equals a lack of intelligence.  But thousands of years of neural evolution can’t be wrong.  Failure is good for you.  And if you’re anything like me, soon enough it’ll be what pushes you forward.

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