Learning from failure - a Growth Mindset


Failure is not an option (but it should be) | Tes News

"If you fall down, get back up again," was one my father's favourite phrases when I was growing up, although my understanding of this didn't really get past the literal until I was much older.

But has this philosophy become absent from our classrooms?

Writing in the 1 June issue of Tes, Chris Parr asks whether our obsessive results-based system of accountability has driven failure out of our education system, creating an atmosphere in which young people are afraid to fail.

Have we decided that an attractive picture of results and feigned success is better than embracing the failures it took to get there? Is the pressure not to fail undermining learning, Parr asks, and if so, what can we do about it?

Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, an associate professor at Columbia University, is heading up a new research centre in the US that will try to coordinate research on how failure affects motivation and learning. Her research has demonstrated that high school students could improve their science grades by learning about the personal struggles and failed experiments of great scientists, such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie.

“Despite the universal belief that failure is the mother of success, my observation is that [Western] schools and parents are doing everything to prevent students from experiencing failures,” says Lin-Siegler.


New Year - new bump!

Turning Failure into Fuel for Success

A new study published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise looked at what happens to us after we fail. The researchers found that experiencing setbacks hurts your self-esteem but has no effect on actual performance.

These findings fly in the face of the commonly held view that failure begets more failure. It’s not necessarily the case that failure at time 1 leads to failure at time 2. In fact, it might be the opposite: It could be the thing that you need to propel you forward to later (and lasting) success.

It depends, however, on how you cope with your emotional response to personal setbacks.

Turning failure into fuel

Failing sucks. The lousy feeling you get after you fail is unavoidable. But it’s this experience of negative emotion that drives improved performance the next time around. It relates back to a longstanding view in psychology called cybernetic control theory.

This theory argues that our behavior is regulated by feedback cycles, like a thermostat: With the rising heat of failure, your brain’s internal governor kicks in to cool your emotions in order to help you be better at whatever you’re doing.

Experiencing negative emotions after failing is an important part of the process. But the kicker is that not all angst and anxiety is going to work in your favor. It’s essential that you steer clear of the debilitating negativity and focus on the emotions that help to turn failure into fuel.



One environment where fast learning saves lives is that of the busy aircraft carrier deck:

When Failure is Not an Option

When things heat up, as during the launching and recovery of planes, the organizational structure shifts into another gear. Now the crew members interact much more as colleagues and less as superiors and subordinates. Cooperation and communication become more important than orders passed down the chain of command and information passed back up. With a plane taking off or landing once a minute, events can happen too quickly for instructions or authorizations from above. The crew members act as a team, each watching what others are doing and all of them communicating constantly through telephones, radios, hand signals, and written details. This constant flow of information helps flag mistakes before they’ve caused any damage. Seasoned personnel continuously monitor the action, listening for anything that doesn’t fit and correcting a mistake before it causes trouble.

A third level of organizational structure is reserved for emergencies, such as a fire on the flight deck. The ship’s crew has carefully rehearsed procedures to follow in such cases, with each member assuming a preassigned role. If an emergency occurs, the crew can react immediately and effectively without direction.

This multi-layered organizational structure asks much more from the crew than a traditional hierarchy, where following orders is the safest path and underlings are not encouraged to think for themselves. Here, the welfare of the ship and crew is everyone’s responsibility. As the Berkeley researchers note, “Even the lowest rating on the deck has not only the authority, but the obligation to suspend flight operations immediately, under the proper circumstances and without first clearing it with superiors. Although his judgment may later be reviewed or even criticized, he will not be penalized for being wrong and will often be publicly congratulated if he is right.”

The involvement of everyone, combined with the steady turnover among the officers and crew, also helps the Navy prevent such operations from becoming routine and boring. Because of the regular coming and going of personnel, people on the ship are constantly learning new skills and teaching what they’ve learned to others. And although some of the learning is simply rote memorization of standard operating procedures, the Berkeley researchers found a constant search for better ways of doing things. Young officers come on board with new ideas and find themselves debating with the senior noncommissioned officers who have been with the ship for years and know what works. The collision of fresh, sometimes naive approaches with a conservative institutional memory produces a creative tension that keeps safety and reliability from degenerating into a mechanical following of the rules.

It is the ability to identify a minor failure, and to admit a mistake with fear of punishment (the Just Culture) that is absolutely key minor failures do not escalate into catastrophes. This is course depends on open lines of communication, attention to detail, and integrity - 100% accountability.

If you look at disasters such as Piper Alpha or the Herald of Free Enterprise, you will notice a number of things. Nobody collected near miss information, nobody had the authority to blow the whistle and shout stop, and things like safety checks were treated simply as rituals. Nobody stopped to challenge minor failures.

Recognising minor failures provides the opportunity to prevent a spiral to disaster, be that a business failure or a major disaster.


I thought this topic would interest a wider range of ARRSErs, perhaps people like @bobthebuilder or @Crash amongst others.

How can we make failure or perceived failure less emotionally and politically toxic so that people and organisations can take ownership of their own shortcomings and learn from them?

Can we start in schools by showing kids they can improve at things?


This thread needs a bump start, as since this is alleged to be a military themed site, what better than the thoughts of a Chilean Lt Col doing the ACSC in the UK?

Failure: A Practioner's View - The Army Leader - Leadership Advice

Failure: A Practioner’s View

By Lt Col Fernando Garetto,

Some authors say that failure is a key element of learning. Others suggest that leaders should share their failures in order to make their people feel more comfortable with their own mistakes, contributing to the generation of a creative culture. Ed Catmul dedicated a whole chapter of his book, Creativity Inc, to describe the phenomenon of failure within the creative process and how an aversion to failure is harmful for those organisations who seek to develop creative practices.

However, it seems that admitting to or acknowledging failure can be more difficult than it looks – arguably even more so when it comes to the military. As Justin Brady explains in his Harvard Business Review article Don’t Be a Hypocrite About Failure, although failure’s importance is common knowledge, this knowledge is not matched by real examples of leaders publicly valuing failure, especially their own. He explains that

“Every leader knows failure is important and necessary to succeed. Every leader is comfortable citing epic examples from other people… But almost no one will openly discuss their own failures…”

This tendency to espouse the importance of learning from failure, whilst failing to do so in practice, is particularly evident within armed forces. This is for two main reasons: the command culture and the relationship between failure and the loss human life.



I think learning from failure has the potential to avoid disasters. As the Nimrod Review notes, the loss of Nimrod XV230 was preceded by other events - see chapter 8.

One of the things need is the ability to see failures as such, and to investigate them, and not simply sweep them under the carpet. It also necessitates a policy of information sharing (within security and other constraints), a just culture, and a lack of assumptions that because someone senior said something, it must be right, without any investigation.

One thing I personally note is how many individual decide not to rock the boat.


A tale of US Navy training woes:

When looking into the Navy’s major exercises, the keywords and themes that kept coming up were traits such as high kill ratios, training one skillset at a time, poor debriefing, and weak opposition.

The structure of training certification in the Navy usually took the form of focusing on individual skillsets and warfare areas – anti-surface warfare and anti-air warfare, and so on. But these things were not often combined in a true, multi-domain fashion. Instead, exercise and training certification regimes often took the form of a linear progression of individual events.

Opposition forces were made to behave in such a way as to facilitate these events. However, a more realistic and thinking adversary would probably employ the multi-domain tactics and operations that are the bread and butter of war at sea. But instead the opposition often acted more as facilitators for simplistic target practice it seems, which is why very high kill ratios were the norm. But more importantly, a steady theme that kept reappearing was that the opposition pretty much never won.

There are so many of these events, so many training certifications that had to be earned in order to be considered deployable that Sailors feel extremely rushed to get through them. And these severe time pressures help encourage this kind of training.

If you are losing and taking heavy losses then you should be taking that extra time to do after action reviews and extensive debriefing to figure out what went wrong, how to do better, and understand why in real war your mistakes would’ve gotten your people killed. The way this kind of conversation plays out is fundamental to the professional development of the warfighter, and it is an important expression of the culture of the organization.

When it comes to debriefing culture within the Navy’s communities you can see a difference in the strike-fighter community, where candid debriefing is a more inherent part of the way they do business, but the opposite was very much true of the surface Navy’s system.
And what is being described here also applies more broadly to how things were done for larger groups of ships such as at the strike group level.

1. Why the difference?
2. How candid are FOST etc? @alfred_the_great


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