Sometime between childhood and adulthood, we become afraid of failure. As kids, whether we’re wrestling with watercolors to create a coherent painting or struggling to ride a bicycle or getting the hang of rope climbing in phys ed, we understand intuitively that failure is inevitable and acceptable and that we can learn from it. But as we grow up, all too often we become conditioned to see only “right” and “wrong” answers where we once saw infinite possibilities. Disapproving glares and snickers—wherever they come from—drive us to fear failure, to cover it up, to toe the line. Fortunately for me, an early mentor offered a much different philosophy.
My first job out of college was teaching dance at a wonderful community arts center in Ohio; the position also brought me into local schools—rather intimidating work for a wet-behind-the-ears young dancer and educator. Aware of my anxiety, my supervisor at the arts center took me aside one day and issued an unusual directive: “Scott,” she said in her caring, no-nonsense manner, “take pride in and account for the (at least) three mistakes you make every day. ‘Cause you know what? You’ll make ‘em anyway.” In other words: We’re all going to commit errors on a daily basis—that’s unavoidable. So we might as well assume ownership of them and make use of them. This was my boss’ credo; she was a woman motivated by things that didn’t work, and her purposeful embrace of failure made my experience at the arts center an extremely instructive one. (By the way, I had no problem making at least three mistakes daily!)
In our book, Imagination First, Eric Liu and I include “Fail Well” as our 28th and final imaginative practice, which should give you some sense of how strongly we feel about it. To imagine is to conceive of new possibilities, and more often than not these possibilities need further fine-tuning before they can become realities; they don’t emerge from our minds in perfect, finished form. So learning to fail in large and small ways, with dignity and intelligence, is essential if one is to become a successful, practice-oriented imaginative thinker. As the estimable Sir Ken Robinson explained at a recent TED conference, “Being wrong is not the same thing as being creative, but if you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never try and come up with something original.”
Indeed, when you find yourself worrying about slipping up—in work, in school, in life—remember my former boss’ advice: fail well!
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