The old mantra is that you’re never supposed to set yourself up for failure. That’s true in most cases, but it’s not a black and white issue. Failure’s good for you, and it’s often the only way you learn. Putting yourself in a position to fail might sound weird, but it’s more beneficial than you think.
We know that learning from your mistakes is one of the best ways to learn, but the idea of actually setting yourself up for failure is a road few of us are willing to venture down. That said, it’s important to remember that the cost of failure is nothing, and if you set aside a “safe zone” where you’re not afraid to fail when learning new skills, you’ll be better for it in the long turn.
Why Setting Yourself for Failure Is a Good Thing
While it might sound counterintuitive, confusion is thought to be beneficial to learning. Researchers found that when you’re confused about conceptual topics, you tend to actually learn more effectively and bring that knowledge forward into new problems. The fact is, the more you struggle the more likely it is you’ll learn.
The idea here is to intentionally dive into topics you’re interested in, even if you don’t know a lot about them. Yes, you’ll likely be confused reading about astrophysics (unless you’re an astrophysicist), or programming code. But you’ll eventually break through that “I suck” barrier with a better understanding of the material. Image remixed from Dudarev Mikhail (Shutterstock).
Try Completely New Skills with No Real Starter Guide
Oftentimes, we don’t even really realize we’re failing unless someone points it out to us. This is the case in all types of skills—from carpentry to photography—if the end result is something that works for us, we have no idea we’re doing it wrong. That’s actually pretty great in a lot of cases, but the learning you do on the way is just as valuable.
If you want to learn a new skill, sometimes it’s best to dive in headfirst with no real understanding for what you need to do. This is best when you’re learning something that doesn’t come with a high cost for failure like photography or art (we wouldn’t suggest trying this for something like fixing the brakes on a car).
For example, while our photography guide is an excellent place to start with photography, sometimes it’s best to just dig into it, and start taking pictures of things. Play around with all the settings on your own, see the results, and see what you like. After a couple days or weeks, dig into a starter guide and go from there. You might be surprised at how much better you understand the material when you’ve already dug into the mechanics. Photo by Nicolas Nova.
Cut Yourself Off from Answers
One of the great things about the internet is the fact that no matter what type of problem you run into, an answer is a Google search away. However, if you cut yourself off from those answers, you’re not just more likely to fail, you’re also more likely to learn the real inner workings of what you’re dealing with.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a huge fan of cooking, but I’m trying to change that. Like most people, I can follow directions and cook a perfectly fine meal, but I’m not actually learning anything about cooking when I’m doing that. I can’t tell you what spices make what food taste good, or even why I’d crack an egg into a bowl before the flour.
So, over the last couple months, I’ve ditched the directions on meals, and just kept a list of ingredients. No measurements, no cooking times. Once or twice a week, I dig in, and try to make a meal with just the ingredients (I do this when I have time to recover and remake food, in case things go horribly awry). I’ve had my fair share of failure here, but I’ve actually learned a little about cooking.
The point is, when we withhold answers from ourselves—whether it’s in programming code or cooking a meal—we’re more likely to try oddball solutions, and we’re going to learn the material better because we struggle with it. This isn’t something you should do with every task. Once and a while leave your phone in the other room, cut off internet access, and dig in. Photo by Gatanass.
We all makes mistakes, and giving yourself permission to suck makes those mistakes a lot less painful. But mistakes are necessary when you really want to learn something, and sometimes the best way to make them happen quickly is to intentionally set the odds out of your favor.