How Productive Failure Promotes Better Learning

Do you know that feeling of emptiness when you look at what you’ve created and think your work sucks? As you learn a new skill, you need to understand that allowing yourself to be terrible – for a while – will ultimately lead to better learning.

This post originally appeared on the Buffer blog .

Einstein was right about a lot of things, but in my opinion this opinion is one of his best discoveries (yes, general relativity is pretty good too):

“Everyone is in the prison of their ideas; he has to open it. ” – Albert Einstein

It takes a lot of courage to create something out of nothing and share it with the world, whatever environment you are in. I have recorded both my own prison of ideas and some of my attempts to free myself earlier. But lately, I’ve noticed that the “prison of your own ideas” is creeping up on me in a new way: fears about whether our work is good or not can prevent us from mastering new skills that can challenge us and help us grow as we progress. growth. people.

As it turns out,getting used to the concept of productive failure or giving yourself “permission to be terrible” isn’t just great; this can also help you learn.

Why We Always Think Our Job Sucks

For me, This American Life host Ira Glass has an exhaustive quote about this inferior feeling, which I’ll never get right, that often accompanies new attempts (narrated here in Daniel Sachs’ short film):

Short version: There is a very good (and reassuring) answer to the question of why this feeling hurts so much – we have great taste! The downside is that our newly emerging abilities did not catch up with our excellent taste.

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

Let yourself be terrible

How to deal with this? You can only stick to what comes easy. You will, of course, be good at them, but you will miss the thrill of overcoming giant obstacles and improving yourself so much that you hardly know where you started.

For me, the best method is to allow myself to be terrible at new things, knowing that this is a necessary first step to stop being terrible.

A post by David Kadavi, which I really like on this topic, lists several reasons why this approach is preferable:

  • It can still be enjoyable to do what you dislike.
  • Doing what you love can often lead to you not sucking it.
  • Life is long, sucking is temporary.

And while the horror can last for quite some time, keep going and practice really makes perfect . (Or at least it will become less lame after a while.)

Figuring things out the hard way can lead to deeper insights

The really good news is that when it comes to learning something new, you feel uncomfortable, it can be surprisingly good for you – and even helps you learn faster!

Manu Kapoor , head of the Instructional Science Lab at the National Institute of Education in Singapore , was the first to put forward the cold-blooded and paradoxical idea of productive failure . To learn in this way, students are presented with unfamiliar concepts and asked to work them out right away without teaching them a method or solution. Research has shown that this method results in students significantly outperforming those who learn with traditional instruction and problem solving.

Kapoor’s theory is that encouraging students to dig deeper and discover what they know, the boundaries of what they know and what they don’t know, actually activates the parts of the brain that trigger deeper learning .

So while this feeling is not very fun (Kapoor notes that most students did not feel confident after the exercise), it can be very productive.

Developing a growth mindset

In terms of science, what we’re really talking about here is the growth mindset.

Carol Dweck, a Stanford University researcher and author of Thinking: The New Psychology of Success , explains the difference between these two types of thinking using student examples:

“With the fixed mindset, students believe that their core abilities, their intelligence, their talents are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s it, and then their goal is to look smart all the time and never look stupid.

With the growth mindset, learners understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good learning, and perseverance. They don’t necessarily think that everyone is the same or that anyone might be Einstein, but they believe that everyone can get smarter if they work on it. “

Through Dweck’s research, we know that a large part of your success depends on whether you believe in your ability to develop or believe that it is anchored.

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

Productive Failure: How to Keep Taking Action When You Feel Like Your Job Sucks | Buffer


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