There will be no surprise in thinking that making mistakes is an important part of learning. This is not a ground breaking thought. From the earliest age, when we start probing our environment, tasting, prodding and feeling our way around, we learn by getting things wrong. We touch something sharp, we learn not to touch it to hard. We touch something hot, we learn to avoid hot things. As we get older, we say something clumsy to a girl, and learn the feeling of embarrassment or rejection, we say something thoughtless to a friend and learn the sense of disappointment as we let them down. We do something stupid at work and feel it have negative impact on our prestige and authority.
We constantly learn by failure, by mistakes. I was on the train the other day when the two men on the seat behind started talking loudly about their office. They were stereotypical salesmen, estate agents in fact, and were doing the usual thing of battling for supremacy, discussing who had sold the biggest house, who had the best figures, veering into the 1980s world of political incorrectness when they started rating their office conquests and fellow female workers.
It’s safe to say that their conversation was not a pinnacle of informed debate and focussed mainly on winning, on getting things right. Then their conversation moved onto a colleague, someone that both of them knew. One of the chaps explained how their colleague had just been signed off work. He was fifty and, apparently, had started experiencing panic attacks, severe depression and, ultimately, had ceased to be able to function in the office.
This caught my attention, because i was intrigued to hear where it was going to go. I was convinced that the previous context of macho posturing would continue, and expected to hear the derision with which this seeming failure was held. But i didn’t. It didn’t play out that way. They virtually flipped on the spot and expressed sympathy and understanding. They switched to a model of disclosure, each relating their own struggles with various events in life, moving to a different pattern of competition, one focussed not on strength, but on weakness.
It was quite intriguing, although i realise the fault was mine for judging people unfairly. I had allowed myself to adhere to my stereotype judgement of them (which, to be fair, they had strongly reinforced with their conversation about women), but i had failed to realise that they were not pastiched 80’s puppets, but rather compassionate people who were switching roles.
Failure doesn’t just mean getting a test wrong or not passing an exam. Sometimes it means misjudging situations or not coping with things. Maybe great leaders really do have to fail before they learn to be great. Maybe sportsmen have to fail before they can win. Without the failure, you can’t have the winning.
Failing is how we learn. Sure, we can train people in subjects, but maybe we need to engineer in the space for failure, ensure that we allow people to make mistakes safely, to fall over so that they can climb back up again.