Saturday, June 20, 2009
Storied money managed Paul Tudor Jones is invited to speak at the graduation of some 9th graders. He avoids the usual cant and instead teaches them about the importance and power of failure, which is a far more effective teacher than success, didactic instruction, or even the example of failure in others. Short commentary below.
In my professional life especially, I have always tried to fail well so that I could learn from the experience (I'll leave it to others to decide whether I fail well in my personal life). The main requirement for good failing is honesty about the cause of the failure; if you do not understand the mistakes that you made, you will repeat them. In fact, the capacity to be honest about one's own failures, at least to one's self, is often if not usually the most important difference between a competent employee and an incompetent one.
Actual social science on that subject here.
CWCID: Paul Kedrosky.
A young person of my acquaintance attends Stanford, a place loaded with precocious achievers not used to failure. The first thing the university did with these kids was to have many of the entering freshmen take a course preaching the virtues of failure. Wonderful idea, if you ask me, since one of the core values of America from the start has been to allow relatively easy recovery from failure. Bankruptcy, after all, was a punishable crime in eighteenth century England. By contrast, redemption has always been possible in America and little shame is attached to failure.
Failure, though not a great thing, is a great teacher. In these parts one of issues in education is whether kids should be allowed to fail.
One of the responses to a failure of kids to master their course material from one grade to the next, is to require that they demonstrate basic mastery before moving from one level to the next. Hence we have exit exams from some grades in public schools.
If you accept the idea that some percentage of students are not making the grade, then these tests will fail some percentage of the kids and will continue to do so until the education process achieves better results.
While the tests say to many students "you made it", and many teachers, "good job!", the tests will also say to many students and teachers, "you didn't make it."
If failure were accepted as a blessing in disguise, you might expect that these test results, though unfortunate, would be seen as beneficial. Many people I'm sure do see them as beneficial. I do.
But these tests leave many staring at a perforated ox. These include teachers (their unions) and some parents who pressure their representatives to reject policies which label some kids and teachers as having failed and inadequate and not as capable as others.
So there emerges political pressure to water down the tests or make them advisory only. All sorts of reasons related to disadvantages the kids have no control over, are advanced to argue that the tests promote inequality.
It is as if a part of the education and political establishment cannot get beyond the part about failure being not such a great thing, and then moving on to grow from it. It is almost as if the idea that allowing failure creates a culture of failure were true. It is more likely, I think, that protecting kids from failure encourages it and lessens the chances for real success in life. Encouraging failure and learning from it are entirely different things.
At the end of the day, it is the adults that are having trouble learning new things and accepting new and challenging ideas.
TH: "I have always tried to fail well ..."
Me, too. In high school I was disqualified during my campaign for student body president. School administrators didn't like bikini-clad girls handing out my campaign flyers in the cafeteria and auditorium.
In To Engineer is Human, Petroski argues that failure is necessary for later success. I agree.
It's not the failure, of course, but that second part of seeing honestly where your mistakes are that is the important part. Failure is often the only thing that will get our attention. When we succeed by the skin of our teeth, or by some lucky break, we tend to move on thoughtlessly.
The number one cause of unhappiness is the unwillingness to accept uncomfortable truths, whether about ourselves, the world, or others.
There's a certain difficulty in getting "through" to young people, who think that they are immortal, Kings of the Universe, and have begun to master the art of sitting in one place and ignoring an Old Person who attempts to introduce knowledge thru their thick skull. (I say this as a former thick-skulled young idiot) But if you can light their fuse, get them to start thinking, then you will often find you have unlocked a wonderful thing.
My most effective (but not "best" speech I did was on the upcoming crisis in power generation. I started by walking over and turning out the lights in the room. It kicked a bunch of students out of their "comfort zone" and into actually thinking about the problem. Very nice. Hopefully some of them will go into Government.