Fail fast. Fail often.

Dick Fosbury is, arguably, one of the most influential athletes of the modern era. Fosbury, of course, was responsible for the development of the Fosbury Flop, a drastically different technique used to negotiate the high jump. After failing time and time again with the more traditional straddle method, Fosbury gained wide acclaim when his technique, which was widely shunned, eventually became (and remains) the most successful way to perform the jump. Initially labelled an “airborne seizure” or “a fish flopping in a boat”, it was a credit to Fosbury’s curiosity and insistence to challenge the norm. 

It is said that of all Michael Schumaker’s skills, his ability to ‘read’ the track, during qualifying and warm up, was his most elite trait. By quickly assessing the intricate quirks of each track he raced on, he was able to formulate race plans much quicker than most. The information he shared with his pit crew about the track, allowed them to assist him best. Whilst others were ‘feeling out’ the track, Schumaker was trimming time with technical and practical application of what he had learnt in practice. In terms of skilled performance, he made a very open and unpredictable environment, a closed and predictable one…and quickly. If he was to fail, it would best be in practice. 

Jazz musicians are often viewed as the least technical and most innovative of all musicians. Jazz music is seen as random, often improvised, or worse, completely ad hoc. To many, they simply ‘go with the flow’ letting the music jump and jut around, seemingly without any thread to where it began. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the very best jazz musicians have such a mastery of the most basic techniques that they could easily play to the truest song book. In fact, the best jazz musicians start with the basics so they can overlap creativity. It requires them to have the confidence and mastery to break away from traditional patterns. It is from their sublime skill of the simple, that they have developed the ability to apply high doses of creativity to the difficult. Like Schumacher on the track,  the real skill is not in following the songbook, but applying skilful play outside of it.

What is certain from all of these examples is that there needs to be a willingness to fail, in order to get better. Schumacher and Fosbury, like jazz greats Miles Davis and John Coletrane, failed many times, but the significant difference was, they learnt from errors made. They failed fast and often.

“A genius! For 37 years I’ve practised fourteen hours a day, and now they call me a genius!” (Pablo de Sarasate, violinist)

Fundamental Error Attribution is the theory that it is human response to want to attribute failure to individuals. We feel that someone must be to blame for poor performance! In some cases, when stakes are high, we will be told of our failings, perhaps by a parent, colleague, mentor, coach or teacher. Yet, in most cases, we will attribute success or failure to ourselves, in self-reflection. The problem is, for most, this is found to be hugely disabling in terms of learning and development. 

Worse than that is the double bind that many oranisations, teams and even classrooms informally institutionalise. You see, many of us talk about ‘making mistakes’ and ‘being honest’, yet we shun failure and laud success. Losses and errors are brushed or hidden away, and we move on quickly. Would it not be better to dwell with these for a while? Would it be better to look longingly at what mistake was made and how it could be learnt from? 

For best learning, educators, regardless of their field, need to create a safe psychological environment where failing is accepted and encouraged. How?….

1. First, we need to apply acceptance of personalisation. For success there needs to be open interpersonal communication of knowledge, rather than strict codification and agreed commonality (hard and fast rules, the ‘way things are’). We should look to accept personalised quirks, personality and wider intelligence rather than insisting on clones.

2. Next we should embrace tacit knowledge & communities of learning …build groups and environs that are all for continual learning. Tacit learning can suggest evidence of cultural handover and learning. Within this failing must be compulsory! Fail fast and fail often. If all in the team ‘bubble’ (players, staff, parents) understand this, progress will be made!

3. Importantly, and especially when working in teams, we need to encourage people ‘in’ from the periphery. Legitimate welcoming in the quest to add to the toolbox. Sports coaches, teachers, innovators and athletes should look to learn from others sports and activities. Finding answers should never be the end of learning. 

4. Recognise and accept that anything worth your time, will draining on your emotions. In fact all of this stuff is emotional! The limbic system of the human body is under significant stress during learning as tasks when done well are repeated, ongoing contextual training. The good thing is, your procedural memory has high situation specificity, and if handled without blunt and one-way criticism, will adapt.

5. Promote curiosity. Sharp use of open ended questioning to beginners, will illicit the natural human response of learning. Effective questioning “what happened there?”, “why did that happen?”, “how would you do it differently next time?”, “is there a better way to do it?” Unfortunately, routines can become fixed – a competency trap if you will (it’s the old way …the way we’ve always done it). If curiosity was not curated we’d still be scissor kicking the high jump and Dick Fosbury would have never had the curiosity or determination to try something new! 

6. Excessive affluence can be as serious a liability as is poverty: Don’t give athletes, students and learners everything, instead give them not quite enough so change and learning, curiosity & creativity can take place. Ensure there is opportunity for creative abrasion – research proves there needs to be “enough grit in the oyster to make the pearl”. 
Fail fast. Fail often. 

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