Episode 4: Failure Is Not An Option
Recently, I’ve been going to the ice skating rink a good bit with my family, as my daughter is taking lessons. And while I do enjoy the actual skating part, perhaps my favorite thing to do while I’m there is watch the new skaters.
I live in Georgia, which means each trip almost guarantees there will be a new crop of folks hitting the ice. For me, they provide another fascinating window into the learning process. What I’ve found particularly enlightening has been the contrast between the kids and the adults who take to the ice for the first time.
The typical new adult skater enters the rink by gingerly placing a foot on the ice, simultaneously maintaining a death grip on the rink wall. This is often accompanied by a face of intense concern, or perhaps blind terror.
On the other hand, a typical new child skater, especially the youngest ones, enters the rink by charging onto the ice with wild abandon. About three or four steps later, they’re face first on the ice.
This behavior typically continues until the end of the session. The newbie adult clinging fast to the wall, baby-stepping their way around the oval with one primary goal in mind: not falling. Usually they succeed. Or they might fall to the ice once, call it a day, and retire to the spectator’s bench.
The newbie child continues to try skating as fast as his or her legs will go, falling countless times, all the while smiling and giggling from ear to ear.
By the end of the first hour, guess who’s become the better skater?
I’ll tell you: it’s not even close.
This contrast between the adult and child learner plays out in virtually any domain. When presented with a new task, each will typically adopt very different approaches. The child will usually explore freely and fearlessly. Give me that and let me figure out how it works!
An adult, on the other hand, will often approach a new endeavor with caution and trepidation. I best be careful, lest I screw up and break something.
Perhaps nowhere is this disparity more apparent than with new technologies: my son had figured out how to turn my iPhone on and order apps from the app store by the age of two, for example (which is common for kids nowadays).
On the other hand, it took a to-remain-nameless adult member of my extended family years to even conquer her fear of smartphone technology enough to even attempt to use one, and she still requires extensive coaching on its basic functions.
The adult is afraid to make a mistake.
The child seeks them out.
If we broaden our perspective, these differences aren’t all that surprising. The human brain doesn’t fully mature until around age 21, an eternity compared to the rest of the animal kingdom.
And the reason we have such a long childhood is so that we can grow really large brains. Brains that are customized to the particular environment we inhabit. Brains that will support the full range of cognitive and motor skills that comprise a fully functioning, independent, adult human in that environment.
In other words, the entire purpose of our childhood, from the brain’s point of view, is to learn. Children, particularly those of the hominid variety, are born masters of the learning process because Mother Nature has designed it this way.
But here’s the challenge: our brain’s must possess neural networks that are suited to a particular environment, but it can’t create those networks until it knows what that environment looks like. Our brain has solved this challenge by becoming a general purpose learning machine, one that can change itself in response to the demands placed on it.
For example, every infant brain starts out primed and ready to begin learning a language of some sort. Yet, it won’t know until the first adults around it start talking whether that language is Spanish or Swahili.
Furthermore, creating these customized neural networks from scratch requires feedback. Lots and lots of feedback. Feedback that says “you’re on the right track”, and feedback that says “this still needs work.” And this network building process is iterative: the brain creates a bit of the network, tests it out, then refines it based on the results.
A Matter of Mindset
So much of our success or failure in learning anything new, whether it’s ice skating or banjo picking, hinges on the mindset we approach it with. That voice inside our heads, the one that likes to judge everything we do, can be our ally or enemy. And nowhere can this voice be more to our detriment than when it comes to the necessity of failure.
Those newbie kids at the skating rink, the ones falling all over themselves, they have the right mindset. They instinctively know that, in order to grow, they have to fail. The faster the better. Falling to the ice isn’t interpreted as a personal failing, but as priceless feedback.
The geniuses at Pixar studios have been able to consistently produce some of the most enduring movies of their generation by following the guiding principle to “fail fast and fail often”. They too know that the faster they “fail”, the faster they grow.
Whether we’re looking to master the art of skating, animating, or banjo-ing, the next law of Brainjo is essential for getting us there: