The importance of failure (and of praising effort not intelligence)

Neon sign reads: People fail forward to success by Ian Kim on Unsplash
Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

I’m finally learning Russian (again)

I am currently learning Russian and reminding myself of the integral importance that failure has in the learning process.

I visited the USSR in 1988 as part of a modern studies high school trip to Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersburg). You can see the photos from my trip on Flickr.

In late 1987 I started a short course to learn some Russian phrases. I didn’t get much further than Что это (what is it?) and это стол и стул (it’s a table and chair) before I gave up. Still, at least learning the Cyrillic alphabet helped me read signs as we travelled around this other-worldly country that was then still behind the Iron Curtain.

Since then, however, I have always wanted to complete the course and learn Russian for nothing other than the academic satisfaction. Plus, obviously, if Russia is to continue to interfere in national politics and influence elections it would be useful to be able to communicate with our eventual overlords in their own tongue.

Thirty years on and I still haven’t learned the language. Which is why, last week I decided that now was the right time. I realised that there would never be a perfect time. I would never have a free six months to devote to the task. If I wanted to do it then I would just have to start now and squeeze it into my daily schedule—five minutes here, ten minutes there.

Why did I give up so easily?

But why did I give up so soon after starting to learn?

There are likely to be a few practical reasons, not least energy levels, volume of school work, and family dynamics (my dad was suffering from brain damage by that point).

Surely, it can’t all have come down to time or motivation. Back in 1987/1988 I had all the time in the world—besides school I had few other commitments. And I had the motivation—I would be visiting Russia during the Easter break in April 1988.

But I still gave up. Why? This puzzled me for a long time, until I found the answer in a couple of books about parenting.

I think the problem was that for as long as I remember I had been told that I was clever, and learning Russian is hard—I gave up, I reckon, because it challenged my self-perception as a clever boy.

This isn’t as daft an idea as it sounds.

The importance of praising effort

In Professor Richard Wiseman’s book 59 seconds: think a little, change a lot (Macmillan, 2009) he explains why “telling a child that they are bright and talented is a terrible thing to do” (p.281).

During the late 1990s a couple of psychologists (Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck) from Columbia University, New York ran a series of experiments with children, during which one group of children were praised for being clever while the other group was praised for the effort they put in (regardless of whether they got the answers right or wrong).

What they discovered was that children who were told they were really bright after completing one set of tasks were then less likely to exert themselves when presented with a choice of further tasks. While the children who had been praised for the effort they put in during the first task were far more likely to opt for a more difficult second task.

Telling a child they are intelligent might make them feel good, but [it] can also induce a fear of failure, causing the child to avoid challenging situations because they might look bad if they are not successful. In addition, telling a child they are intelligent suggests they do not need to work hard to perform well. Because of this, children may be less motivated to make the required effort and be more likely to fail.

Professor Richard Wiseman, ibid, p.283

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman go into more depth about this research in their book Nurture shock: Why everything we think about raising our children is wrong (Ebury Press, 2009).

It turns out that children who are frequently praised tend to become more competitive and more interested in belittling others. Their primary interest becomes image-maintenance—having been told they are clever, they want to continue to be seen to be clever even if that means pulling others down around them.

Looking back at my childhood and teenage years, I don’t recognise that last aspect of tearing others down but I wholeheartedly recognise the image-maintenance part—I would joke years later that I simply dropped those subjects that I didn’t do well in, not realising at the time that I did this because they clashed with the self-image that I had been developing and which was being built-up by folks telling me that I was clever.

I liked being clever. I didn’t like doing things that didn’t make me feel clever. It makes perfect sense. But I wonder what I missed in giving up things too soon. I wonder what would have happened if instead I had been praised for my effort and dug in deep at times.

How can students succeed if they are not taught to fail?

While I was working as the warden in a university halls of residence, I would frequently have conversations with students about the importance of failure.

Here we had, arguably, some of the brightest young people in the country who had progressed from success to success to become, in many cases, the brightest in their school. And then when they arrived at St Andrews among other similar youngsters they found themselves to be decidedly average.

That took them quite by surprise. And coupled with a different style of learning at university and an increased workload many found themselves not hitting their usual 100% expectations.

To many it felt like the sky was falling in: their world was collapsing and their self-image was being shaken at a fundamental level.

In my first year at St Andrews, I would tell them, I failed two-thirds of my course. Two-thirds! I passed divinity but failed Old Testament and ecclesiastical history; I managed to progress to second year by the skin of my teeth. But that experience changed me—it helped me to understand how I work best. It helped me to understand what works for me, and what doesn’t. In the end, I graduated with a 2:1 honours degree that I was delighted with.

It is okay to fail

This paragraph from an article on @TeacherToolkit that I read last year resonated with me:

In recent years there seems to be an accepted fallacy that learning happens in a linear fashion, with educators setting up opportunities for children to jump from success to success without ever encountering failure. However, if this is the case, to what extent are your pupils simply working as opposed to learning?

Teacher Toolkit

They suggest incorporating failure in the learning process. This is their list of suggestions:

  • Provide the children with the toolkit to cope with failure.
  • Praise the children’s best efforts and show them how to move their learning forward.
  • Develop an ethos where the children are not afraid to fail and develop strategies to overcome challenge.
  • Don’t hide mistakes from children. Adults make mistakes all the time, but children seldom are afforded the opportunity of witnessing this.
  • Make teaching points of your mistakes and model how to deal appropriately with failure.
  • Pupils should have the confidence to attempt new activities in a safe and secure environment knowing that failure will be met with encouragement and support. Failure isn’t something to be feared, but rather is part of the learning process which should be embraced.
  • Children need to know that it is okay to fail and it is the trying again that is important, this is how children succeed.

But it’s not just children and university students who need to learn the importance of failure. For the last few years I was working as an agile project manger in a web development team—”fail fast” is something we used to advertise as one of the benefits of working in an agile manner.

I’m delighted to see Karl Scotland (from whose writings I have learned a lot over the years) is running a session at this week’s Lean Agile Scotland event in Edinburgh entitled “Failure is not an option”.

That’s right, failure is not an option—it is a necessity.

For many organisations, failure is something to be avoided. Poor results are frowned upon; people don’t take risks, and they hide undesirable results for fear of being blamed. But it’s these failures that generate new information from which we can learn, and this learning is what leads to organisational improvement and long-term success. This session will explore why failure is not an option, but a necessity, and how we can make failure a friend and not a foe. Karl Scotland  “Don’t bury your failures. Let them inspire you.”

Lean Agile Scotland

Let your failures inspire you

I really like that quotation: don’t bury your failures, let them inspire you.

There is something here to inspire me as I try to remember what этот (this), он (he), она (she) and оно (it) mean in Russian; as I try to encourage Joshua to do his French horn practice—”you’re trying really hard to play the right notes, well done” rather than “you’re so good at that”; and as I reflect on my last twenty years of work and try to make sense of what my strengths are, what weaknesses I need to work on and where I should put my energy next.

I’ve moved house… again

Three houses in a terrace. The left most has a gable. Each has a door and four windows. Mind is the middle on.
My new house in sunny Crail is the middle one of these three.

After 871 days (that is 2 years, 4 months and 20 days) as warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall, University of St Andrews, I’ve hung up my gown and moved on.

I loved being warden, living and working amongst around 540 students and supporting a team of six assistant wardens. But it wasn’t great for my health, to be honest. It turns out you sometimes need sleep and time for yourself. And for many weeks I got little of either.

So I have moved back down the Fife coast to the East Neuk and am living in a wee two-bedroom mid-terrace house in Crail.

This is my third house move in as many years.

I’m much closer to my children now, and it’s an area that I used to cycle around over the years so I’m looking forward to getting out on my (newly serviced) bike over the next few months and gently improving my fitness.

From top to bottom: Isaac, Reuben and Joshua, sitting on the stairs. They are all wearing school uniforms.
From top to bottom: Isaac, Reuben and Joshua

The boys like my wee house and have been over to stay for a few weeks, and a few overnights during the week too.

I needed to buy a dining table and benches and a couple of chests of drawers (at Ikea, of course) plus a bunch of storage boxes for linen and shoes. But two weeks in and I have fully unpacked now and organised almost everything the way that I’d like it.

Here is to relaxing for a bit, regaining my fitness, losing the 2 inches or more than I put on my waist over the last 871 days, and figuring out where life will take me next. It’s exciting…

Here’s a video I found online from the developers. My house is featured about 17 seconds in.

Empty flat

Reuben and Joshua's bed
Reuben and Joshua’s bed

I struggle with weekends at the moment.

During the week I’m busy. I usually rise around 05:45, say morning prayer, have breakfast (usually porridge… what can I say, I’m Scottish), get myself together and head in to the office early. In the evening I return to my flat and get stuck in to hall life and other little projects that I have on the go right now (writing, illustrating, music, reading).

Most weekends I have my three children over, and I love it. I love them. I love being with them. I feel whole again. They have such energy, such life, such wild imaginations and we spend hours riffing off each other’s silliness with word play and rhyming (earlier today we had “stranger danger with the lone ranger”, and “I am Gimli, son of Glóin, son of… George?!”).

Some weekends they come over on Friday evening, still in their school uniforms, bouncing with energy, irritable with tiredness, overflowing with cuddles. A few hours later, they are asleep in bed, and I’m either asleep too or I spend a quiet evening in the lounge enjoying the emotional glow of having my boys with me again.

Saturday is usually filled with all sorts of activities. Reuben enjoys lying beneath his duvet on the bedroom floor with his tablet, watching cartoons on Netflix or Minecraft tutorials on YouTube. Joshua and Isaac migrate from the sofa to my PC and back to variously play computer games on my PC (mostly LEGO, although they’ve recently got into the multiplayer Ballistic Tanks and Dirt 3 rally) or their tablets. Usually at some point the LEGO comes out. Yesterday Reuben presented me with a packet of Papercraft models he’d received for his birthday asking for some help to build them. Translation: Dad, could you please build all of these for me while I watch?

Minecraft, but on paper: Papercraft.
Minecraft, but on paper: Papercraft.

This morning I heard Isaac (who will be six next week) exclaim, “Look at me! I’m doing elf parkour!” while playing LEGO The Hobbit.

Sometimes we’ll go out, though by the weekend they are often ready for a quiet day in, especially if the weather is foul. (Me too!) Yesterday we went out shopping for new winter hats and gloves, and they then spent a couple of hours (and most of the heat from the flat) traipsing in and out to play in the snow.

By Sunday lunchtime I generally begin to feel melancholic and heavy as I begin to anticipate the loss that I will feel when they have to go home. It’s unusual for me not to shed a tear after they are driven away. Not always immediately, but certainly at some point.

On some occasions Joshua (mostly) has simply refused to leave and has curled himself up in a ball on the sofa in a sulk and has stopped responding to any encouragement to leave, or simply repeats “I don’t want to go!” Sometimes I’ve just let him stay for a few more hours and we’ve enjoyed a fabulously fun afternoon, just the two of us, before cooking dinner and driving him back to Anstruther in the evening.

This is the hardest part of the separation for me. I’m sure I’ve said this before—I’ve certainly mentioned it in conversations more than once. I can accept that Jane doesn’t want to be with me: I’ve broken up with girls in the past. But it hurts to not live with my children.

I’ve often wondered what other people think about me because I moved out. It wasn’t easy. I think it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. On the day I moved out, my brother at times had to physically carry me. I’ve never experienced grief like it—my father’s death nineteen years ago was a walk in the park (well, in the cemetery, at least) compared with this. I would have happily stayed with them but it’s less socially acceptable for a mother to move away from her children than a father.

During the week, where I can, I nip over to Anstruther after work to see them for an hour or two, in a house from which my memory is slowly being erased. It’s not enough, but it’s better than nothing and it keeps me going until the weekend when we can enjoy another few days of silliness and laughter and cuddles together.

This weekend, for some reason, the WiFi went off in my flat. So it was a good opportunity to introduce them to the wonders of setting up a portable WiFi hotspot using my smartphone (4G, thankfully). And then watching them gobble up about half a month’s bandwidth allowance in two days between them on their tablets.

We also started to play around with Microsoft Kodu, which is designed to introduce children to computer programming.

This is Isaac's latest world and Rover.
This is Isaac’s latest world, and Rover the robot.

Using nothing more than an Xbox games controller (and/or keyboard and mouse) Kodu allows you to easily create games within a simple point-and-click environment. It was amazing to see Isaac get into it and think through how to build his world and program the controller with the basic framework of when X, do Y, e.g. when I press A on the gamepad, fire a missile; when I bump into a rock, make it explode; or when I press the right trigger on the gamepad, make my character grow to four times his normal size. Their experience with Minecraft: Pocket Edition has done wonders for their creativity and problem-solving skills.

And so… to my usual Sunday evening routine. Over the next few hours I will sink back into the silence of the flat, enjoy the warmth of the memories of another fun weekend with my children, and look forward to the next one. And prepare for my week ahead.

Lorem Tintin

Lorem ipsum dolor sit Thompson et Thomson
Lorem ipsum dolor sit Thompson et Thomson

Last weekend I bought the boys* The Adventures of Tintin, a five DVD, 21 episode box set of animationed adventures by Hergé’s world famous boy reporter.

How delighted I was when on the first episode we watched I saw one of the characters reading a newspaper that was entirely lorem ipsum filler text.

(* I may also have bought it for me. I used to love when my dad went off on a business trip and returned with a Tintin or Asterix the Gaul book for me.)

This too shall pass…

Raindrops on a window
Source: iStock

Day 71

Three weeks ago I went to the health centre for an appointment with the GP who recognised that the headache I was experiencing wasn’t just a prolonged migraine but meningitis.

I was there for two reasons: I needed to be signed off for longer, and I needed painkillers that were stronger than ibuprofen but milder than the 30/500 co-codamol that were playing havoc with my stomach.

The GP was really kind and understanding. He signed me off for a further four weeks, gave me the prescription I needed, but also gave me some gentle advice: pace myself. He reminded me that viral meningitis, though not as dangerous as the bacterial variety, is still a pretty serious condition.

“Even if you’re having a good day,” he advised, “don’t try to run 100 metres in ten seconds! Pace yourself.”

Then he said something that really shocked me. “I expect you won’t be back to full stamina for probably 4–6 months.”

Not four to six weeks… months!

When I stepped out of the health centre I burst into tears. At that point, I’d been going for six weeks, trying my hardest to stay positive. Trying to will myself to be well. During those six days in hospital I had been the most afraid I’d ever been, and when I was discharged nothing had physically changed. All I had now was a label to affix to it: ‘viral meningitis’.

It’s common for someone with any kind of prolonged illness to experience a kind of grief reaction, a response to the loss of a more ideal self. It cycles randomly through familiar ‘stages’: shock, denial, anger, depression, defensive compensation, acceptance, and adjustment.

This past week, these last seven days, I encountered ‘depression’. I have felt so low. But like the weather, I know that this too shall pass.

This too shall pass, but at the moment I’m feeling quite isolated.The headache began two months and nine days ago, and apart from a few visits to hospital I’ve not been out of the house very much, and I’ve had three visitors.

I’ve tried to find a rhythm to the day to positively get me through this lethargy and sense of loss. At the moments mornings are better than afternoons, when I physically crash and sleep between lunchtime and when the older boys return from school. During the evenings I pick up a little, but I’m not particularly enjoying these shortening days. I now have four lamps in my study, with the brightest LED and low-energy bulbs that I can find.

As my eyesight improves at its glacial pace, reading and writing have become easier. So I tend to spend the early part of each morning—once the breakfast dishes have been cleared away, washing put on and beds made—in prayer and reading. And then, usually before the headache grips me, I get some writing in; I’ve enjoyed blogging regularly again.

The children have been brilliant. Their hugs and laughter have really lifted me through this week. Quite unbeknown to them, I’m sure… although I do tell them.

That’s where I am just now. It’s been a bit of a slog, but I’ll get there.