By: Dr. Eric Anctil 

I have an eight-year-old son who is great about failing in his attempts to learn many things. Snapping his fingers, whistling, and juggling are endeavors he starts very awkwardly and only slowly develops the skills to master. Once mastered, of course, there is an abundance of celebration of the new skill, much to the household’s chagrin (it’s not uncommon to hear finger snapping and whistling maddeningly echo throughout the house at all hours; it’s the price of progress, I suppose).

I am worried, though, that my determined son is quickly approaching an age when he will become more cautious about failing along the way towards mastery. The combination of school, peer pressure, and a maturing self-awareness will inevitably sap his desire to “look stupid” in pursuit of greater achievements. As his father, my job is to keep reminding him that failure is essential to mastery and to never to give up looking foolish on the way to conquering something cool.

I bring up this example of failure because I worry we live in a culture that is too focused on participation above success (“everybody gets a trophy!”) and too satisfied that it’s ok to do whatever is required to get the ‘A’ without really being challenged to fail and learn from the failure. If you asked the average college student if she would rather have an “A” in a class, but learn only some, or a “C” and learn a lot, I suspect most would scoop up the “A” without a second’s thought.

My hope for the new year is that all of us reconsider the vital role failure plays when learning and innovating. Innovation requires we all be more comfortable with failure. Failure allows people to learn what went wrong and to improve future attempts. Losing a game means adjusting strategy for the next competition and testing it against an opponent. A broken design leads to rapid prototyping until one perfects the flaws. Confronting a challenge one is likely to lose means pushing to see what the limits really are within the challenge itself.

It’s not enough to take the safe route to wherever you’re going; you need frequently to take the path less traveled to see what’s really out there waiting to be discovered.

Risk aversion is antithetical to innovation and to learning, but it is what so many have grown accustomed. We play it safe because playing safe is predictable and is unlikely to cause harm, to others or ourselves. It’s much easier to say, “everyone gets a trophy” because we don’t want to make people feel bad for “losing” even though losing is the very motivation a person or team needs to win the next round.

Being innovative is similar. “Losing” motivates the innovator to find a way to win. There is no settling for participation. Anyone can participate, but only innovators can bring change.

Developing an innovation mindset requires a motivation to fail as part of succeeding. The innovators of the world appreciate that it is the failures along the way to improving something that made the thing itself innovative, new or different. Innovators don’t settle for what is predictable. Rather, they know that discovery is only possible with taking risks and likely failing. A lot.

And, in the event something is successful the first time around, it probably wasn’t that innovative to begin with. Try, fail, change, repeat. With each iteration, innovation.

As you begin thinking about your New Year’s resolutions, I encourage you to consider taking up failure as chief among them. Don’t always play it safe. Expect to fail and know that with each successive failure you get better at the very thing you’re trying to innovate. A willingness to awkwardly snap fingers or whistle eventually leads to a healthy “snap” and a whistling tune. Failure is key to innovation; when you don’t fail to innovate, you fail to innovate.

 

Dr. Eric Anctil is Associate Professor of Education at the University of Portland where he is also Director for Innovation, Franz Center for Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation. Follow him on Twitter @ericanctil or find him on his website: www.ericanctil.com. He’s an agreeable fellow and always willing to chat.  

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