In the very first episode of KUT’s podcast “Higher Ed,” Southwestern University President Dr. Ed Burger and KUT’s Jennifer Stayton talked about the importance of failure to learning. Has any thinking changed about that concept in the past five years?
Ed says he has greater clarity now than he had five years ago about one aspect of effective failure. He says he better understands the difference between just bouncing back from failure and actually learning from it.
“It’s not the mistake, it’s what comes next,” says Ed. “If you make a mistake and say ‘well, that didn’t work; I’m going to try something else,’ that’s tenacity, which is fantastic and perseverance, which is wonderful. But it’s not effective failure.”
So what exactly is effective failure?
“It’s stopping and it’s holding that attempt that didn’t work, ” says Ed. “And instead of doing the cultural norm, which is to pretend it didn’t happen and sweep it under the rug…instead of focusing on perfection, focus on the process.”
Ed believes that what makes a failure “effective” is the evaluation that follows.
“You hold that failed attempt in your mind until you have an epiphany, until you have an insight,” suggests Ed. “Until you see something that was there but you hadn’t seen before. And then you can dismiss it, let it go and do something else.”
And Ed says that “letting go” is crucial to the process so that people do not get stuck wallowing in their failures.
“That letting go… can be challenging for some people who do not want to let go and who say ‘see, I’m not good at that; I can’t do it,’ ” Ed points out. “But instead … the letting go is just as important as the learning.”
Listen to the entire episode to hear more about incorporating effective failure into daily life and learning. That opportunity may present itself before the episode even ends (depending on the solution to last episode’s puzzler about art with matchsticks!).
This episode was recorded on Oct. 22, 2019.