How Productive Failure Leads To Better Learning

Do you know that sinking feeling when you look at what you’ve created and think your work totally sucks? When you’re learning a new skill, you need to realise that giving yourself permission to be terrible — for a while — will eventually foster better learning.

Productive failure image from Shutterstock

Einstein was right about a lot of things, but in my mind this sentiment is one of his finest discoveries (okay, the general theory of relativity is pretty good, too):

"Everyone sits in the prison of his own ideas; he must burst it open."

Building something from nothing and sharing it with the world, in whatever your medium may be, requires a lot of bravery. I’ve chronicled both my own idea prison and some of my attempts to free myself before. But lately I’ve noticed the “prison of your own ideas” sneaking up on me in a new way: That apprehension about whether or not our work is any good can stop us from learning new skills that can challenge us and help us grow as people.

As it turns out, getting comfortable with the concept of productive failure —or giving yourself "permission to be terrible" — isn’t just healthy; it can help you learn, too.

Why We Always Think Our Work Sucks at First

To me, This American Life host Ira Glass has the definitive quote about that inferior, I’m-never-going-to-get-this-right feeling that often accompanies trying something new (here told in a short film by Daniel Sax):

The short version: There’s a very good (and hopeful) answer to why this feeling hurts so much—we have great taste! The downside is that our newly-forming abilities haven’t had time to catch up with our superior taste.

So we’re deeply, painfully aware of how bad we are.

Give Yourself Permission to Be Terrible

How do you combat this? You could stick to just the things that come easy. You’ll be good at them, for sure, but you’ll miss the thrill of overcoming giant obstacles and improving yourself so much that you barely recognise the point where you started.

A better method for me has been giving myself permission to be terrible at new things, with the knowledge that this is the necessary first step to stop being terrible.

A post by David Kadavy that I really love on this topic lists a few reasons why this approach is preferable:

  • Doing things you suck at can still be enjoyable.
  • Doing things you enjoy, can often lead to not sucking at them.
  • Life is long, sucking is temporary.

And even though the terribleness could last quite a while, keep going and practise truly does makes perfect. (Or at least less sucky, after a while.)

Figuring Things Out the Hard Way Can Lead to Deeper Understanding

The really good news about feeling totally in over your head when it comes to learning something new is that it could be surprisingly good for you—and even help you learn faster!

Manu Kapur, head of the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore has pioneered the cool and counter-intuitive idea of productive failure. To learn this way, students are presented with unfamiliar concepts and asked to work through them right away, without being taught the method or solution. Research has shown that this method leads students to significantly outperform those who learn through traditional instruction and problem-solving.

Kapur’s theory is that leading students to dig deep and discover what they know, the limits of what they know, and what they don’t know actually activates parts of the brain that trigger deeper learning.

So while this feeling isn’t very fun (Kapur notes that most of the students felt low confidence after the exercise), it can be super productive.

Developing a Growth Mindset

To get scientific, what we’re really talking about here is a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explains the difference between the two mindsets using students as an example:

“In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.

In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

Because of Dweck’s studies, we know that much of your success hinges on whether you believe that your abilities can be developed versus believing that they’re fixed.

Those with a growth mindset can handle sucking for a while. Because they focus on their ability to change and grow—as opposed to those with a fixed mindset — they can see the light at the end of the tunnel and think on a time when they will see improvement.


This post originally appeared on Lifehacker UK, which is gobbling up the news in a different timezone.


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