On School and Failure

The following is taken from a Quora answer by Marcus Geduld. The question asked was, “Why do we get frustrated when learning something?”


School trains us to get frustrated when we fail.

Failure is a very good thing. It’s one of the best—maybe the best—learning devices. Yet rather than capitalize on it, most schools work hard to turn failure into something distasteful. And by the time people graduate, having spent most of their formative years in an institution where failure is a sin, they have a huge aversion to failing.

In most schools, the major structural element is ranking. We’re wired to take ranking seriously. As soon as ranking exists, we care about it. A, B, C, D, F. Pass/Fail. And in the worst-case-scenario, you fail and are “kept back a grade,” which affects you socially.

I have many memories of teachers compounding the problem. The didn’t say, “How interesting: you got an F. Let’s examine the situation and see how that happened…” Instead, Fs came with stern lectures. When we got Fs, teachers (and parents) were very disappointed in us.

(And I’ve never heard a teacher say, “Oh dear. You’ve gotten four As in a row. I must not be challenging you enough. Let’s see if we can push you to failure so that you can overcome it. Personal trainers understand how vital that is. They wouldn’t let you keep lifting weights that didn’t strain your muscles. Many schoolteachers don’t get it or work in environments that don’t allow it.)

They didn’t tell us that failure was a natural part of the learning process. They told us we had let them and ourselves down. We were basically told, over and over, for years, that if we got Fs, it was because we were lazy or stupid. Laziness is a moral failing; stupidity is an innate deficit. Failure—school tells us—means we’re moral and physical cripples.

People (understandably) hate this so much, that as soon as they can, they put themselves in a position where they never have to fail again. (Or where the chances of failing are as small as possible.) They find jobs that aren’t all that challenging after an initial learning curve. The goal, conscious or not, is to coast for the rest of one’s life.

Which gives adults very little day-to-day experience with failure. Most people I know failed at certain subjects in school (maybe not by getting Fs, but by struggling with those subjects for years), and now have simply decided “I’m not a ______ person” or “I just don’t get _______”, e.g. “I’m not a Math person” or “I just don’t get Shakespeare.” That absolves them from trying. Which keeps them from failing. Which keeps them from learning.

This is not the way we start out. If infants decided, after many hundreds of failures, “I’m just not a walking person” or “I just don’t get talking,” we’d all be screwed. Luckily, those skills are acquired before school gets its clutches on us.

UPDATE: Google agrees with me. See Why Google doesn’t care about hiring top college graduates.

Megan McArdle argued recently that writers procrastinate “because they got too many A’s in English class.” Successful young graduates have been taught to rely on talent, which makes them unable to fail gracefully.

Google looks for the ability to step back and embrace other people’s ideas when they’re better. “It’s ‘intellectual humility.’ Without humility, you are unable to learn,” [Google’s head of people operations, Laszlo] Bock says. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure.”

“… What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’”

Also worth reading: Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators:

[Carol] Dweck has spent her career studying failure, and how people react to it. As you might expect, failure isn’t all that popular an activity. And yet, as she discovered through her research, not everyone reacts to it by breaking out in hives. While many of the people she studied hated tasks that they didn’t do well, some people thrived under the challenge. They positively relished things they weren’t very good at—for precisely the reason that they should have: when they were failing, they were learning.

Dweck puzzled over what it was that made these people so different from their peers. It hit her one day as she was sitting in her office (then at Columbia), chewing over the results of the latest experiment with one of her graduate students: the people who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you’re either born with or not. The people who relish them think that it’s something you can nourish by doing stuff you’re not good at.

… “The kids who race ahead in the readers without much supervision get praised for being smart,” says Dweck. “What are they learning? They’re learning that being smart is not about overcoming tough challenges. It’s about finding work easy. When they get to college or graduate school and it starts being hard, they don’t necessarily know how to deal with that.”




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