Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?

I attended TEDxAustin 2013 on Saturday. According to the TEDx license, organizers are required to show at least two pre-recorded talks from the TEDTalks video series that you can watch on YouTube. You might wonder what benefit we get from this, since anyone can easily watch these on-demand at home (for free I might add). It turns out that the context of the event adds to the value of these videos. The theme for this year's event was Fearless.

In one of the videos we watched, Regina Dugan explored some amazing technological achievements made by scientists and engineers at DARPA and posed the question, "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?" It seems like I watched it before, but there was something more captivating about watching it again at a TEDx event.

Dugan describes how seemingly impossible things suddenly become possible when you remove fear of failure. Fear of failure constrains us and prevents us from attempting great things. On the other hand, Dugan describes failure as being a good thing. The path to doing new and innovative things always involves failure, and failure is required for learning.

I recently read about the impact of failure on learning in How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. You can also read about this in Lehrer's 2011 Wired article, Why Do Some People Learn Faster?  In his book, Lehrer described how our brains learn from failure.
"Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process."
Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, performed research that showed how praising kids for being smart can have a negative impact on their ability and willingness to learn. They will fear that mistakes will show that they really didn't deserve the praise they received for being smart. They will see mistakes as signs of stupidity and not as an opportunity to learn.

On the other hand, praising kids for their hard work will motivate them to take on bigger challenges even if it increased the risk of failure. Kids performed significantly better when praised for their efforts than when praised for their intelligence. They even chose more difficult assignments that gave them a higher risk of failure.

We see this in video games. In another TED talk, 7 ways games reward the brain, Tom Chatfield described the positive impact of rewarding effort.
People should be credited for everything they try and do. Don’t punish failure. Instead, reward and reinforce, and make everything count towards a clear measure of progress. As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the most profound transformations we can learn from games is how to turn the sense that someone has “failed” into the sense that they “haven’t succeeded yet.”
Lots of research is being done on gaming systems to motivate people to achieve. What makes a good video game? It seems to be the ones that aren't so easy that you never fail, but aren't so hard that you give up trying. The successful games are the ones that let you learn through failure without being crippled by the fear of having to start all over from the beginning if you make a mistake, meanwhile providing successive rewards through challenging progress.

As Dugan pointed out in her talk, it is not failure itself, but instead it is the fear of failure that stifles us. Failure is a healthy part of the learning process. I think she might have been asking the wrong question. Maybe she should have asked what would you attempt to do if you had no fear of failing?

Would we strive for achievement if we knew we could not fail?

Or would we get bored because there would be no opportunity to achieve the impossible or to learn something new?