Getting Better: Fail Nine Times

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.-Samuel Beckett

In their book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, math professors Edward Burger and Michael Starbird state that the word ‘fail’ is considered offensive in our culture. “The mind-set that mistakes are poisonous often freezes us into inaction.” 

However, they point out that mistakes are part of the healthy, normal way to learn anything new (or create anything new). So, to really learn, you have to get over the fear of making mistakes.

Fear of failing can keep us from even beginning projects. I remember when I taught composition, and students came in for conferences. Some would pull out a blank piece of paper and say, “I have no idea how to get started.” Others, just as confused, pulled out some messy sheets of paper, scribbled with ideas, some marked out, ideas that didn’t always hold together. Which group was the easier to help? The second group, always. Once anything is committed to paper, then you can start making improvements. You can see exactly where things started to go wrong.

As the sports people say, “You’ve got to get in the game.”

Burger and Starbird use a basic strategy in their classes: Fail nine times; succeed the tenth. For one thing, this approach removes the stigma from failure since it is seen as normal and expected to fail. In fact, when you fail, you can think, “Hey, I’ve got eight more times to go.”

Second, it does keep you in the game. You actually have to be doing something in order to fail. So now you can analyze your steps so far and see where you went wrong. And even if you’re not sure where to go next, you have a clear place to start if you need to ask for help from your professor or tutor.  

I liked this idea so much that I have incorporated it for my own writing projects. I now mark each draft with a 1-9 to see which ‘failure’ it is. After the 9th draft (and each draft must have significant improvements), I consider it ready.

Happy failing, my friends. 


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