The ASQ Blog topic this month by Paul Borawski talks about a study published in advance of next week’s National Engineers Week (17-23 Feb). There is a lot of meat in the study that I fully support. I am a “shining” example of the truth of the findings, although I am not an engineer. What I will talk on is the “process of learning, growing, being successful”; you could call it the basic life process.
Nobody likes to fail. When we do, we feel bad. Often our first impulse is to “try harder.” It is a topic I am working on with my 14 year old son after he recently got very good semester grades (2 A’s 5 B’s). He did poorly on exams in two subjects so his first response was quite defensive when I asked him about his grades. It wasn’t until he and I actually reviewed the data and I started to have a conversation with him did we start to actually come up with a way to “try harder.” To me, this is important because our current public school system does not promote this life process. The one skill that students do not learn and practice is how to learn. So the answer is to try harder, which actually means do the same thing as before (Einstein’s definition of insanity) and feel worse when we fail again because “we tried harder.”
As parents, mentors, teachers we have a responsibility to practice patience in the light of failure. As parents, mentors, teachers we work to prevent to catastrophic failures; we need to create an environment where the student can fail, feel the emotion, and then train them that skill of introspection and problem solving. Novices will not understand this process so we have to be patient and let the novice fail in this process and build the perseverance skill so that the novice will want, and eventually need, to try it again and again. This is a basic human skill. My son does it all the time when playing video games. He fails and keeps trying. Unfortunately, the failure is not personal so the learning value is much smaller.
The repetition of this cycle is important in building the critical skill of self-confidence. I define self-confidence as the ability to easily accept failure as part of future success. Unfortunately, our culture and public institutions have the desire to achieve this end-state with the charges without practicing the life process. By shielding novices from emotional pain of failure we are stunting their ability to learn. So what they build in the way of self-confidence becomes shattered when faced with a catastrophic failure. There is no safety net, no realization of owning the consequences of the made choices, and no ownership of improvement. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon in personal and professional life.
I have been in the quality profession since 1994. When I first started out, I successfully got a position based on an ASQ certification. I had the knowledge, not the experience or self-confidence so that when placed in difficult situations I did not respond well. I experienced the same thing when I first started teaching statistics. My failures are currently viewed on “ratemyprofessor.com.” But introspection, a good mentor, and the patience and determination to succeed provided me a successful stint as a Lean Six Sigma instructor for the Navy. With this success, it gave me the confidence to accept a leadership position in a whole different quality discipline—metrology. Now, I feel I am successful because I am handling tough situations using a time-tested process and I can trust my people to do the right things daily.
What we fail to realize is the peer pressure push to succeed sooner in our careers is detrimental to our long to success. We HAVE to fail. To not fail is to not learn. To learn means that we grow. The pace that we need to learn is much faster so we need a support system that efficiently helps our charges in going through the “life process” and being able to fail successfully.