Stu Neighbour

How to Embrace Failure in Learning

“To Fail is Human” ...okay, it's not quite Alexander Pope but you get the idea.


It’s a word that produces a physical reaction when you hear it.

It’s a word we are programmed and taught to avoid for so much of our lives – especially through school.

You remember those days like they were yesterday right?

Person up the front of a room reading out stuff. Consume content. Get tested on your retention of content. Pass and you feel relief and receive the approval of your teacher and more importantly mum and dad.

Fail and you want to crawl into a hole as you feel you’ve let others down. Beat yourself up and promise everyone you’ll consume more content and try to retain content better next time for that day that you need to apply it.

That last bit of course, was never part of the curriculum. You got detention if you asked, “When will we use this?”

No wonder the school system itself has failed so many.

And we see this mindset within learning at work.

Take for example this classic conversation overheard in many meeting rooms throughout the world:

Person 1: “We need to have an assessment.”

Person 2: “Why?”

Person 1: “Because we need to know who has passed and who hasn’t.”

Person 2: “Why?”

Person 1: “Because the regulators need it.”

Person 2: “Why?”

Person 1: “Because they need to know who is compliant.”

Person 2: “And what if they’re not compliant?”

Person 1: “Then they’ll do the assessment again until they’re compliant.”

Person 2: *Puts head in hands while dying slowly inside.*

(Sorry - sidebar – but what does compliance in this setting even mean? I thought non-compliance was the goal when you were part of the education system 😊)

I’m sure most regulators are regular people with hopes and dreams of their own who also went through the school and university system and from that their only frame of reference for learning is content-test-pass/fail.

Which isn’t learning at all...

Its short-term memory retention.

When it comes to how people learn, so much of the learning that occurs within organisations is just based on what people know about learning from their formal learning experiences during their own lives.

But outside of work failure has a different meaning doesn’t it?

Here’s roughly how we learn when we’re not at work:

  1. We want to learn something new
  2. We chunk it up
  3. We practice a small bit
  4. We fail
  5. We reflect on what bit didn’t work and why.
  6. We practice it again…and again…and again
  7. And we repeat that chunk until it feels right and then we move onto the next chunk.
  8. We integrate it into our lives

We fail heaps. And we learn from it. And its ok.

And here’s the thing we get as individuals, that for some reason gets lost within the places we work.

Failure is not a bug of learning. It’s a feature.

If we’re going to build a learning culture for the future where our society doesn’t look like the opening 5 minutes of The Terminator, then we need to reframe what failure means for ourselves as well as where we work.

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