On Failure and Third Grade

I was surprised to find this evening that reporting my failure to complete an action item to my MBA project group triggered a vivid flashback to the third grade.

Marlene Keret was one of those memorably-fantastic elementary school teachers overflowing with quick life lessons repeated consistently as fun rules. One such rule I am still reminded of often was to always roll up your sleeves; as announced regularly in class, “the Big G will get you” if you have only lazily pushed up your sleeves. The implication was that unless you invest some time up front into properly rolling up your sleeves, Gravity will cause you to continue to inefficiently re-push up your sleeves until you inevitably end up rolling them up for good anyway. Though irrelevant to this story and somewhat trivial in nature, this rule can probably be extrapolated to apply to many life situations; and I can say from experience that even just within the sleeve domain it has saved me incalculable emotional energy.

The rule triggered by this MBA group moment, though, was her ban on the “M-word:” Mistake. Any time a student claimed to have made a “mistake,” Ms. Keret was quick to point out that there is no such thing — “Did I just hear the M-word?!” Shocked students — trained and ashamed that mistakes were embarrassingly prevalent in our experiences stumbling through life as a child — would then be reminded that instances referred to by others as “mistakes” are actually “learnings” in disguise. Doing something incorrectly or inefficiently and subsequently identifying it as an opportunity to improve is a moment of learning to be celebrated with a more positive label, rather than condemned with such a negative connotation.

As reported to my project team tonight, my ‘failure’ to complete the second user interview I’d committed to was a sad, unfortunate mistake. While I can be quick to make excuses — I’d had it all set up, I’d been prepared, it was cancelled for reasons out of my control, there was nothing I could do — reframing this failure (F-word?) as a “learning” immediately helped me realize that the responsibility was still on me: I should have allowed more time and had a backup plan, and will remember now to do so next time. A failure or mistake is easy to write off as out of one’s control, but owning such a moment as a “learning” puts the agency back on us, making it feel less embarrassing, inevitable and excusable, and instead more productive, opportune and even fortunate.

I’m now excited to recreate my memories of fellow third graders proudly announcing, “Oops, I just made a learning!” in my current work as an innovation team designer and as a DMBA student. I think it’s certainly a step in the right direction that many of us in the design strategy and tech innovation fields are now quick to share and take pride in our design process failures, as current trends encourage us to actively fail as a vital part of a successful innovation process. However, there’s still hard-to-shake connotations to the word ‘failure’ that make it feel like a dead end, easy to distance from ourselves rather than proudly own, integrate and build off of.

It might be only a minor adjustment and substantively the same, but replacing each “failure” with a Ms. Keret-style “learning” label feels suddenly more productive. Thank you, Marlene! I’m sorry it took me so long to realize I realized all the most important innovation techniques back in elementary school — we all make learnings every now and then.