21: The freedom to fail.

- February 12, 2017 -

During my first year as an English major, I had one particularly impactful professor whose advice remains with me to this day.

After a new round of essays had just been graded and returned to us, she remarked that, as a class, we’d been trying too hard to make our essays sound overly intelligent — and, in doing so, had actually achieved the opposite effect. We were using words that were too big, writing sentences that were too long, and being over-enthusiastic in our usage of the ever-elusive semicolon.

At this point, most professors would simply penalize their students for their various mistakes. More than that, though, they would do so with little consideration for the students’ self-esteem, often via the always enjoyable sight of swiftly penned ink across a neatly typed page: a scribbled-out word here, an imposing question mark and a -2 there.

(Or, worse yet, ‘awk’ — short for ‘awkward,’ indicating clumsy wording — sprawled in the margins of your most-loved, most carefully constructed sentences.)

.. But, you see, this professor didn’t. She explained that, at such an early stage in our development as writers, it wasn’t at all helpful to be punished for our mistakes because that would only encourage us to remain within the very limited bounds of what we already knew. And so, in pencil, she would carefully circle only the very first instance of a mistake, leave a note explaining why she had done so, and invite us to raise the issue for further discussion in class.

Yes, our mistakes were brought to our attention, but they weren’t held against us in such a way that was upsetting or would have negatively impacted our grade. She was eager to stress that the most important thing was not that we had failed, but that we were reaching: we were striving for something beyond our current capabilities. Sure, we hadn’t quite mastered it just yet, but we were making the attempt. And that was what mattered.

She wanted to encourage more of that behaviour, wanted us to keep reaching, and she knew that this was only going to be possible in an environment where risks could be taken without fear of being penalized for failure.

. . .

I was reminded of this professor when I came across a TED Talk by Eduardo Briceño, titled “How to Get Better at the Things You Care About.” If we fail to get better at something, he says, it’s because we’re spending too much time in the ‘performance zone:’

“The learning zone is [where] our goal is to improve. [There,] we do activities designed for improvement, concentrating on what we haven’t mastered yet, which means we have to expect to make mistakes, knowing that we will learn from them.

That is very different from what we do when we’re in our performance zone, … when our goal is to do something as best as we can, to execute. [There,] we concentrate on what we have already mastered and we try to minimize mistakes.

The reason many of us don’t improve much despite our hard work is [because] we tend to spend almost all of our time in the performance zone. This hinders our growth, and ironically, over the long term, also our performance.”

. . .

These days, it seems that just about everything we do takes place in the performance zone and, as a result, is being evaluated in some very tangible way.

(Social media comes to mind, of course, but even our lives outside of social media are now fraught with the behaviours and expectations which the online world of metrics and productivity has imposed upon us.)

Rather than simply accepting this new performance-based reality, though, what might happen if we were to consciously turn our focus back to the learning zone, become comfortable with not knowing, and allow ourselves the freedom to fail?

Even if it were only in short bursts — an afternoon here, a 15-minute coffee break there — might this not be precisely the type of behaviour which has the potential to be transformative, to push us beyond even our most persistent plateaus?


Eager to find out,
– J


This piece comes from Jana Marie’s newsletter, The Sunday Letters. You can sign up to receive future editions below.