This is a guest post from Alastair Arnott, the author of Positive Failure. Rather than running as fast as we can from failure we might learn from it teaching us, as it does, wisdom and humility rather than the sloganeering and impossibility of 'mandatory success.'
In my book ‘Positive Failure’ I attempt to conceptualise failure. Such an important aspect of human development deserves to be understood fully, whatever occupation or facet of life we occupy. It has turned out that the roots of failure seem to lie in our schooldays. ‘How to’ has been done. We all know how to diet, how to get that perfect stomach and how to relax. We don’t need ‘how to’. What has not been covered, is when ‘how to’ fails. The stuff that gets in the way, the obstacles and defeat that is inevitable in our own personal journeys, the relentless perfectionism we strive to achieve. How relevant to people's real lives has school actually been? Over 50% of children leave school branded as failures in the UK, having not obtained the required amount of qualifications.
I argue that we all subconsciously want to be right, all the time. Hypothetically, lets imagine a world where this happens. Every endeavour succeeds as well as you thought it would, every obstacle is overcome easily and any problem is immediately solved. To me, this feels uncomfortable and frightening. Something ironically wouldn’t be ‘right’ if this was reality. We subconsciously strive to keep our image of ourselves positive, yet we all know that everyone makes mistakes and nobody’s perfect. So why do we defend, pretend and, in some cases twist the truth to make ourselves look good?
Have you ever paused and thought about William Shakespeare as a child? I hadn’t. As Ken Robinson said in one of his lectures: “can you imagine being his English teacher?” Stop making up words, calm down, put that pen down and listen, that isn’t on the syllabus, you have to follow our curriculum!
I wonder how he would fare in today’s school system? Would he have passed his English?
Our children are failing to learn because they haven’t learnt how to fail. They are more confident, more individual and more vulnerable than they ever have been. Their self-esteem is at record levels, yet employers the world over, complain of how they are just not up to the standard required. When they don’t know what to do, they crumble. Do they have the resilience necessary to secure the job or career they want? They are labeled as bright, dim, clever or stupid at younger and younger ages. The IQ test continues to be the basis for the 11+ exam in the UK and is over 100 years old. Can you imagine if medicine, technology or science still used instruments and measurements from 100 years ago?
Can we reverse this? I think we can. I introduce the theory of positive and negative failure. Positive failure in its simplest form is a dose of failure that is similar to a vaccination process. The process of vaccination is not pleasant. I argue that the theory of positive failure mirrors the patterns of Edward Genner's smallpox vaccine and functions within the same paradigm.
In a world of mandatory success, I argue that success can breed contempt and positive failure breeds progression. To distinguish between the two types of failure, I offer this definition:
Positive failure: is failure after appropriate investment that leads to further learning or development.
Negative failure: is failure after inappropriate investment that stunts further progress or development.
Conducive to positive failure are appropriately supportive and forgiving relationships in an unforgiving environment. The more realistic and tangible the challenge or standard, the more likely it is for positive failure to occur.
I argue that negative failure adversely effects self-esteem and resilience. Positive failure does not adversely affect self-esteem, but strengthens and builds it. For positive failure to yield the best results, I suggest the following preconditions are important.
Pre-conditions for positive failure: acceptance of ones own vulnerability, having a growth mindset and embracing imperfection.
Pre-conditions for negative failure: defiance of ones own vulnerability, having a fixed mindset and embracing perfectionism.
Rather than trying to live up to a perfectionalist idea of ourselves, which is projected by someone else, why not embrace our own strengths, our own failures and our own weaknesses. I encourage us to see failure as a gift, as an irreplaceable source of laughter, art, individuality, creativity and change.
Click the link to find out more about Positive Failure, out now with Cambridge Academic Publishers and available on Amazon.
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