I once failed a “Social Interaction” class in college (it was an online course– give me a break). I thought it was an easy online class that I could take and lean on the fact that I could make friends really quickly. I repeated the class the following semester.
In the season of accomplishments, graduations, and the culture of sharing good news via social media– I want to talk about failure. I’ve kept so many of my personal failures a secret out of sheer embarrassment– but how can we transform those moments of failure into something better?
Last Friday, I indulged in some “at home” professional development. I pulled out my favorite leadership books and put on a TED talk playlist. I got to thinking about my own failures. Failed tests, failed time management efforts, and failed classes (á la the dreaded “Social Interaction” classes). I also remembered failed romantic relationships, and the moments when I thought “I’m not good at this, am I?” But even when I compare those two instances, I recognize that it didn’t mean that I “wasn’t good at relationships” or “bad at social interaction” or even “bad at online classes.” It meant that there was something I hadn’t learned yet. I relied so much on my innate ability that at some point… I stopped putting in the effort to be better.
1. Get gritty
I watched this awesome TED talk on grit and classroom engagement. In Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk, she says, “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality.” She talks about the benefits of not believing that “failure is a permanent condition.”
This resonated so much for me. I’ve always identified as an “okay” student– the type that repeated classes and put more effort into things like my photography. But in every instance that I wasn’t the perfect student, I always remembered that that moment of failure, as Duckworth mentions, wasn’t a “permanent condition.” In my quiet and dark moments alone, I didn’t think I had what it took to make it to graduate school. But I held on to the notion that my failures were not where I would live, and now I’m half way done with my graduate school program.
There’s even a survey via UPenn (where Duckworth is a professor in psychology) where you can measure your own level of grit. I scored a 4.5 out of 5. Try it yourself. (Disclaimer: the last few questions are on identity and use a restrictive gender binary of “female” and “male,” as well as a question on martial status).
2. Fail when it doesn’t count as much
Back when I thought I would become a professional photographer, I first worked for a mall portrait studio. One day, when a couple walked in with their 1-week newborn in the studio, and I was so scared to even touch their baby at the fear that I would break it. The photos were awful, but they bought over $200 worth of portraits anyway. I thought that maybe I hadn’t failed that badly– but in less than an hour, they came back to the studio saying they had buyers’ remorse and wanted a refund on all the awful photos. My manager stepped in and offered a reshoot instead, where she proceeded to fold their baby into adorable containers– Anne Geddes-style.
I was crushed.
But I also recognized that before that day, I had only photographed people who could hold their own neck up. I asked my manager to do practice shoots with me using teddy bears to get better with newborns, and later when I left the studio to be a freelance photographer– I got better.
And I actually paid my way through college by starting up a little photography business.
And what about if you’re a supervisor– on the other side of failure? How does this show up for student affairs professionals? Are we allowing space for failure? For creativity to flourish? Or are we too concerned with “getting it right” or making sure the finished product looks good to our boss?
Grace Choi, the inventor of Mink, created a desktop printer that prints wearable makeup— a product that could totally change the cosmetic game. At 6:05 of the video, she answers a question about manufacturing of the product and its potential for failure. Her answer is brilliant: “We’re gonna fail. You just have to make sure you don’t fail when it counts.” Every opportunity that isn’t the big stage is just that– take advantage of those rehearsal moments.
3. Effort > Intelligence
Do you give the right kind of compliments? This is a followup video to the research that Duckworth mentions in the grit video. Carol Dweck at Stanford University conducted a fascinating study on praise of effort vs. praise of intelligence/ability with a group of children. She found that kids who were praised for their effort were more likely to build more resilience and take on more challenging puzzles. In another clip, she explains that kids who were valued for their abilities use that as a “claim to fame” and stuck to what was easy. Transform those moments of challenge by first recognizing that failure will lead you closer to answers.
More and more, I’m affirmed that effort is everything. You can have talent, but it loses potential if the drive to be better isn’t there. So being a “failure” isn’t necessarily a bad thing– it’s an inevitable part of life. But if you can manage those moments and use it to elevate your learning, failures can be transformed into something great.