Failure is an Option

Excuse me for my cliche title.

My User Experience (UX) professor asked us the other day “what can students do to experiment more in the classroom?”, to which I asked, “Shouldn’t the professor facilitate an environment that allows failure?”

He volleyed, “How?”
I conceded with “I don’t know.”
“How would you do it?”

My professor then said that even if teachers facilitate that environment, students should change their mindset from getting good grades to a mindset that’s willing to explore. He said, and I’m heck paraphrasing here (i.e. I could be off), if students only aim for that “A,” their mindset is narrowed to only achieving that “A” level and they don’t realize their other potentials.

Over the years in college, I’ve come to realize that being in school, especially for a design student, isn’t so much as learning new concepts or techniques (since you can learn these at a job or through online tutorials) but rather it’s an opportunity to flex your skills and exploit them through experimentation. I’m not saying “drop out, design school isn’t necessary,” but rather, to fully take advantage of the days you can freely express yourself without fear of reprimand and repercussions.

James McAvoy, an actor, once said that drama/theatre school is a safe environment because your vulnerability is protected. I’d like to think this is applicable in any field, not just in acting or design.

However, this is all easier said than done. As someone who grew up in a community that praises those with high scores, I’ve been engrained with the idea that to do well in school means to get good grades and a grade lower than an A- means you aren’t trying hard enough. Even I know this is an extreme way of thinking, and I am aware that it’s unhealthy because it adds unwanted stress and pressure. I am also aware that it hinders me from taking risks.

But after years of brainwashing, how does a student such as myself rewire their brain to think that it’s okay to mess up, it’s okay to get a blemish on their transcript, and it’s not the end of the world when they fail?

That, I do not know. I do believe recognizing and accepting this idea and letting time do its work will lead to a healthier mindset.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

— Samuel Beckett

I think Beckett’s quote ties in well with this passage from Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelly:

“[Creative geniuses’] ultimate ‘stroke of genius’ don’t come about because they succeed more often than other people—they just do more, period. They take more shots at the goal. That is the surprising, compelling mathematics of innovation: if you want more success, you have to be prepared to shrug off more failure… [Thomas Edison] understood that an experiment ending in failure is not a failed experiment—as long as constructive learning is gained.”

I don’t disagree with what my professor said, mind you. I still stand by the belief that teachers should create a safe environment that allows students to make mistakes. In turn, I think this environment will make students become more intrinsically motivated to experiment, and help them learn from their failed experiments.

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