IN THIS POST: Learning from failure is a reasonable goal to have, but how often do we do it? The learning part, I mean. Maybe not every situation deserves in-depth consideration, but valuable lessons can be extracted with a bit of reflection from many of our less-than-stellar moments. I tried it with three of my failure moments, and here are the results.
Failure is a part of life.
Though we often make much of this reality, how often do we stop to reflect on what our failures have taught us? Sure, spending ten minutes every day thinking about our shortcomings is not a great use of time. But without any period of reflection we may very well run through life cycles of chaos or regret or apathy.
I examined three of my failures to see what worthwhile lessons they had provided me.
In writing these three together I noted that there could certainly be other insights from the examples. Nevertheless, the three lessons that I have listed are the ones that were pertinent for me. Stay tuned to the end for a list of questions I used to work through my mistakes in a productive way.
Lesson #1 – It Matters Who You Ask for Help
Learning from Failure #1: The Story
The context is early morning, Habitat House project, upper floor of a work-in-project. If you’ve never participated in a Habitat build before, here’s the basic scoop. Habitat helps get families into homes through a program that requires the new homeowner to volunteer their time to help build the house. Additionally, volunteers are recruited through various other groups and organizations to contribute. I fall into the volunteer category.
This was my second project, but the first project that required hammering skills. Never before had I realize how under-equipped I am to pound tiny, sharp spears into wood planks.
One of my first assignments was securing a floor in a closet space. Our group leader wanted me to pound in nails at an angle and with little operating room between the hammer and the floor. I pounded the same nail (and the area around the nail) for at least ten minutes. I don’t like asking for help, but I wanted to do it right and give it my best shot. Here was my opportunity to learn.
I asked a volunteer next to me; she wasn’t a reflective hammerer so she couldn’t communicate her nail-pounding strategy. Then, I asked the guy who was a co-leader of our section of the house how to best hammer nails, and he grunted and mumbled some ideas, then left. I kept banging. I’m here to tell you that that little nail didn’t move. At all.
Finally, I asked the other co-leader. She patiently gave me some suggestions, watched me practice, helped correct errors and sent me on my way. The nail was in. It probably would’ve brought a sense of accomplishment if it didn’t appear that I had just ruined any chance of that door shutting completely. Fortunately, other areas where I hammered had more successful outcomes.
Learning from Failure #1: The Lesson
What did I learn when I finally went home? Well, there were a couple things.
One, there are muscles in your bottom end that you can completely ignore until you squat for an hour. Ouch!
Two, it matters who you ask to teach you something new.
I asked three different people to show me something as simple as hammering a nail and received three very different responses. Only one was useful. Depending on what skill you might be trying to learn, look for someone who has experience and patience.
My eldest daughter is learning this day-by-day when we tackle her math problems in the Beast Academy curriculum. Sometimes I have the requisite experience and patience. Sometimes, I can get her to the answer, but I can’t necessarily tell her “why” it works (a helpful thing to know when learning math and building on skills). And sometimes, I swallow my pride and tell her to ask her dad because he does have the experience and patience to make a concept clear.
It’s a valuable lesson to take with you everywhere and builds into the next attempt I made to learn from failure.
Lesson #2 – Knowledge is Not the Same as Experience
Learning from Failure #2: The Story
One time, my husband and I thought it would be a good idea to go whitewater rafting at the National Whitewater Rafting Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. We used to live in Charlotte, and this is a great facility for a wide range of outdoor experiences. For a lot of people whitewater rafting is ah-mazing! For me, it was a disaster.
Our guide properly introduced us to all the rules and skills and know-how that we needed to safely navigate the raging, swirling waters and stay in the raft. I paid attention, eyes focused, edge-of-my-seat intense. I had been to the ocean enough to respect the water.
Here’s the thing. Sitting on a chair as a guide rapid-fire shoots instructions to me is not the same thing as falling into the highest level rapids and trying to remember all the instructions while also trying to breathe. They’re not even close.
What the guide failed to mention was that for all those hand signals the raft leaders were going to flash us if we fell in, we’d have less than a second to gasp air, find our raft, locate the leader, see the signal, process the signal, and respond accordingly.
Frankly, gasping air came first and that’s about all. When water is turbulent it pushes and pulls while it flips and stretches. I had no idea where I was in the water or where I was going. Mostly I was trying to avoid smacking my head on an artificial underwater “rock.”
I did make it eventually to the calm water. The group in our raft was thrilled to be a part of a rescue. I was not and for good reason. It was every bit the embarrassing debacle I knew it would be.
The instructions they give for pulling someone up into a raft are good, but when a group of newbs enthusiastically try to dunk-and-pull a full-grown, sopping wet, 6’0” tall woman into a raft, well…what was left of my pride was damaged for good measure.
I wish I was kidding when I told you that we did the circuit again. Our group was enthusiastic about taking another turn through the rapids. I was not, but what are the odds that I would go overboard again?
Sure enough, same spot, I flew out of the raft. This time I scrambled to the side and waited until someone tossed me a rope to climb. No more team-hug rescues, thankyouverymuch.
Learning from Failure #2: The Lesson
I’m certain I missed a step in where to position my feet or how I needed to sit or roll. It was definitely something I failed to connect in what I was taught and what I actually did. No one else seemed to have issues, and it happened in the same spot both times.
To this day I have trouble with boat-related activities, even in calm water. I’ve been kayaking once or twice since this debacle, but I still have to muster my courage even though it’s not remotely the same activity. I’ll keep trying. I love being around water. But I will not be riding any rapids.
The lesson was clear though: having head knowledge is not the same as having a lived experience. There can be gaps and flaws in both, but there is a distinct difference.
I’m just really glad this lesson didn’t appear while I was skydiving!
Lesson #3 – Never Give Up…but Maybe Go in a Different Direction
Learning from Failure #3: The Story
Several years ago I attended a kickboxing class at our local gym. I was looking for some form of exercise that I could enjoy regularly and knew that kickboxing was great cardio and strength-building.
The problem, really, is that I don’t have a violent bone in my body. The instructor was high energy and high intensity (a good match for a kickboxing class), and her strategy was to walk through the class and shout aggressive phrases (I think to inspire us?).
But as I was watching my funny attempts at assertive hits and kicks in the class mirror and listening to her shout and roar I had an (almost) uncontrollable urge to giggle. Kickboxing is completely outside of my character, and I couldn’t take myself seriously. I didn’t look like I could intimidate a fly. I was flailing and grinning – hardly the epitome of deadly serious or suburban scary.
It was a great workout, but it was not a great fit. I would not be returning.
So was that it?
Learning from Failure #3: The Lesson
No, of course not. Just because one form of exercise didn’t work didn’t mean I gave up completely. Exercise will probably always be something I undertake begrudgingly, but I get that it’s important – particularly as I get older.
I took another group class later (yoga, I think?), but the format just isn’t for me. Then, I tried different cardio options in the gym. I did some aerobic exercises in the swimming pool. In the end, I found a somewhat consistent rhythm for a while by walking. Back to basics and not terribly exciting, I know, but it’s an exercise that I enjoy enough to keep doing it. My husband and I also recently purchased a rowing machine, and I’ve enjoyed mixing that into my exercise options.
To be honest, I’ll probably always be looking, trying, and adjusting when it comes to exercise. It’s not my favorite thing, but I know it’s important. But for me, in this case, “never give up” doesn’t mean stay in a class I hate, it means keep trying to find exercise options that are sustainable.
All that to say, really, that the advice to “never give up” doesn’t mean you should stay stuck forever in a routine or goal that isn’t working just so that you don’t give up. It may mean that you “never give up” on your goal precisely by trying a different approach.
Questions to Guide Learning from Failure
I hope that these lessons might be encouraging or useful to you. Maybe you can use them without having to go through my goofs to get there.
Or, maybe you have your own set of “failures” that left a mark on your thinking and you’d like to see if there’s anything worthwhile to extract. In that case, here are some of the questions that I returned to when reflecting on these three incidents. Maybe they’ll be helpful for you, too.
- Why didn’t that work for me like I thought that it would? In other words, where did expectation break from reality?
- Why didn’t help work when I looked or asked for it?
- What about the situation makes it so poignant to me? In other words, why does this situation stick with me as important?
- What about the situation or the outcome or the lesson learned did I have control over? There are certainly situations when the actions of others impact our life, but learning from failure requires a sincere effort to hold ourselves accountable.
What about you? Have you found lessons in your mistakes or failures? How do you think about situations that don’t end how you expected?