On failure and taking risks

Just before the break, my Director of Academics asked me to speak in Monday’s academic-themed assembly – the first day back from the break. I’m not sure why he tapped me on the shoulder, and I immediately recoiled from the idea, but I knew that I had some ideas that were worth sharing with the student body. They were about taking risks and managing failure, so it only made sense that I lead by example and step out of my own comfort zone, take a risk, and write something to share with the school, no matter how difficult it might be for me. 

Then the holidays hit, and along with them, a nasty bout of bronchitis and strep throat, which meant I completely lost my voice for almost a week and am just now getting it back. I’m not sure if I’ll be well enough to speak in tomorrow’s assembly. Nevertheless, I wrote the piece that I intended to share and figured I would share it here with you in case it doesn’t otherwise leave the Google Doc on my computer. 

In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs said this: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” He was talking about the multiple unexpected turns his life took, and the various failures along the way, like dropping out of university and being fired by Apple, and how they eventually, and surprisingly, ended up as being the things that led to his greatest successes. What he meant was that as much as he could have tried to plan the direction his life and his career were going to go, inevitably there are things that happen to derail that train. But in the end, those setbacks and those failures can end up being the milestones along a very successful journey.

So why am I talking about Steve Jobs? Because he embodied what the most successful people around us are all about: taking risks, making mistakes, and finding their way to success in spite and because of them.

Taking risks and failing at things that we try is something of particular interest to me recently, and so I wanted to share these thoughts with you today. As many of you know, I have a one and a half year old daughter. Although in teacher’s college I learned all about what is happening in the brain as we learn something new, my understanding about how learning happens has never been as clear as it is now. As I watch my daughter navigate this huge, unknown world, it’s almost like I can see the synapses forming in her brain, right before my eyes. Everything that she sees being done, whether it’s watching me put my shoes on or brush my teeth,  she immediately wants to try to replicate. And in doing so, she makes a LOT of mistakes. She fails. All the time.

Not too long ago, she was very interested in the cutlery that we were using to eat our dinner. So of course she wants to try it. Me, being the adult, of course, was worried about the mess that would surely ensue. And that is because the danger of failure is ingrained in me. But I handed her a spoon and a bowl of applesauce, and she missed her mouth more than she found it. And she turned the spoon upside down on the way and spilled applesauce all over herself. But as time went by, every time she got a bit more applesauce in her mouth. She got a bit better. She stayed a bit cleaner. And this is how we learn.

Children decide they want to do something and they try it. They don’t worry about looking silly, or what it will say about them and their worth as a person if they fail at it the first time (or the second time or the third time). They keep trying, over and over again until they get it. But as we grow up, we become more and more worried about failure. We worry what people will think of us. We worry what failing at something will mean for our future. And so we stop taking risks, and we start sticking with the “safe” route, to make sure that we’ll be successful. And I’m telling you all right now that doing this really takes the fun out of learning.

Let me ask you this: Have any of you ever had a choice on an assignment or project in school where you could decide to do the “safe” thing – the thing you already know you can do successfully – or you could choose to do something maybe a bit more creative? Or out there? Or something new to you that maybe you’ve always wanted to try doing? How many of you, when thinking about that scenario, would choose the “safe” route? Kudos to you if you would go the route of trying something new.

Your teachers aren’t immune from these fears either. Teachers, how many of you have tried an innovative new lesson only to have it blow up in your face and be a complete and utter disaster? Did you reflect, re-evaluate and try to tweak it to try it again? Or did you say “forget it” and toss out that idea and never return to it again?

The thing is, if we don’t take risks and we aren’t willing to try something new, we will never leave our comfort zone. And it is by leaving our comfort zone that the magic happens.

Term two is about to begin. Soon, the student services team will begin their sessions to introduce the course selection process. As you consider your options, think about signing up for that course that you’ve always been interested in but weren’t going to take because it wasn’t part of the “master plan” for your university and career plans. Think about checking out a course that maybe none of your friends are taking but you’re actually interested in the subject matter. And think about enrolling in the course that maybe you know you will struggle with a bit, that course where you know you won’t achieve 95% but it sounds fascinating. Because you know why? You’ll probably actually learn something along the way.

There is no shame in engaging in the struggle of learning. There is only shame in avoiding the challenges that will cause you to grow and stretch and change as a learner. I’ll leave you with this quote from Theodore Roosevelt, from a speech often referred to as “the Man in the Arena”:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes up short again and again… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

All images created in Canva. The design of the “Comfort zone” image was not an original idea – I’ve seen it many times in a similar format, but couldn’t find one that was labelled for re-use. 

7 thoughts on “On failure and taking risks

  1. Hi @jweening!
    Great speech. Your Director of Academics was right to tap you on the shoulder for the job. And I do think talking to our students about “making mistakes” cannot happen enough. I like that you included teachers in what you wrote. Sometimes I think we are constantly trying to make everything perfect that we forget what we are modelling.
    Glad to hear that you are feeling better and see you at the next F2F.

  2. Wow Jennifer! What a speech! It gave me goosebumps! It was exactly what I needed to hear to start this next term. I also love that you asked teachers whether they are trying new lessons and iterating on them. So often when a lesson flops, I abandon the idea rather than spending the time to try to tweak it moving forward. I think sometimes we can get so comfortable in our daily (sometimes annual) routines that we forget that we should be modeling lifelong learning and risk-taking. This was a powerful reminder for me to step outside of my comfort zone in order to let the magic happen. Thank you! 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words @mhamilton! I’m so glad that you found it inspiring and useful. Comments like yours remind me of that Derek Sivers video “Obvious to you, amazing to others“. I worry when I write things like this that “everyone knows this already – I’m just repeating ideas that I’ve heard in other places”, and yet that is most often not the case!

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more about the lessons we can learn watching our children grow. And who knew learning to walk involved so many bumps to the head! Thank you @jweening. I especially loved: “There is no shame in engaging in the struggle of learning. There is only shame in avoiding the challenges that will cause you to grow and stretch and change as a learner.” That is going to stick with me.

  4. @jweening Thanks for sharing this. Beautiful address. It’s so wonderful to read these well crafted messages because they always approach the themes we keep revisiting in a slightly different way. I’m bookmarking this one for sure!

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