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How (And Why) To Intentionally Set Yourself Up For Failure

The old mantra is that you’re never supposed to set yourself up for failure. While that’s true in a lot of cases, it’s not always a black and white issue. Failure is good for you, and it’s often the only way you learn. Putting yourself in a position to fail might sound weird, but it’s more beneficial than you think.

Picture: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

We know that learning from your mistakes is one of the best ways to learn, but the idea of actually setting yourself up for failure is a road few of us are willing to venture down. It’s important to remember that the cost of failure is nothing, and if you set aside a “safe zone” where you’re not afraid to fail when learning new skills, you’ll be better for it in the long turn.

Why Setting Yourself Up For Failure Is A Good Thing

While it might sound counter-intuitive, confusion is thought to be beneficial to learning. Researchers found that when you’re confused about conceptual topics, you tend to actually learn more effectively and bring that knowledge forward into new problems. The more you struggle the more likely it is you’ll learn.

The idea here is to intentionally dive into topics you’re interested in, even if you don’t know a lot about them. Yes, you’ll probably be confused reading about astrophysics (unless you’re an astrophysicist) or programming code, but you’ll eventually break through that “I suck” barrier with a better understanding of the material. Picture: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

Try Completely New Skills With No Real Starter Guide

We often don’t realise we’re failing unless someone points it out to us. This is the case in all types of skills — from carpentry to photography. If the end result is something that works for us, we have no idea we’re doing it wrong. That’s actually not a bad thing in a lot of cases, but the learning you do along the way is just as valuable.

If you want to learn a new skill, sometimes it’s best to dive in headfirst with no real understanding of what you need to do. This is best when you’re learning something that doesn’t come with a high cost for failure, such as photography or art (we wouldn’t suggest trying this on something like fixing the brakes on a car).

For example, while our photography guide is an excellent place to start with photography, sometimes it’s best to just dig into it and start taking pictures of things. Play around with all the settings on your own, see the results and see what you like. After a couple of days or weeks, dig into a starter guide and go from there. You might be surprised at how much better you understand the material when you’ve already dug into the mechanics. Picture: Nicolas Nova/Flickr

Cut Yourself Off From Answers

One of the great things about the internet is the fact that no matter what type of problem you run into, an answer is one Google search away. However, if you cut yourself off from those answers, you’re not just more likely to fail, you’re also more likely to learn the real inner workings of what you’re dealing with.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a huge fan of cooking, but I’m trying to change that. Like most people, I can follow directions and cook a meal just fine, but I’m not actually learning anything about cooking when I’m doing that. I can’t tell you what spices make what food taste good, or even why I’d crack an egg into a bowl before the flour.

So, over the last couple of months, I’ve ditched the directions on meals and just kept a list of ingredients. No measurements, no cooking times. Once or twice a week, I dig in and try to make a meal with just the ingredients (I do this when I have time to recover and remake food, in case things go horribly awry). I’ve had my fair share of failures here, but I’ve actually learned a little about cooking as well.

The point is that when we withhold answers from ourselves — whether it’s in programming code or cooking a meal — we’re more likely to try oddball solutions, and we’re going to learn the material better because we struggle with it. This isn’t something you should do with every task. Once in a while leave your phone in the other room, cut off internet access and dig in. Picture: Gatanass/Flickr

We all makes mistakes, and giving yourself permission to suck makes those mistakes a lot less painful. Mistakes are necessary when you really want to learn something, and sometimes the best way to make them happen quickly is to intentionally set the odds out of your favour.