Before Graduating Lesson 1: Learn to fail well

Do not graduate without knowing this!  As a lecturer I attend at least one graduation ceremony a year.  What a celebration – years of hard work publicly acknowledged.  Those that graduate have a body of knowledge that they have spent years accumulating.  For your future success however, you will need more than knowledge, as Charlie Munger points out in his 2007 USC commencement address:

You are not going to get very far in life based on what you already know. You’re going to advance in life by what you learn after you leave here.

So a student leaves my classes with knowledge of financial management, business analysis and risk management but what else will they need to maximise their one and only life?  What attitudes or approaches are essential?

In response to these questions I am writing a series of “Do not graduate without knowing this!” articles.  I wish I had known all of these lessons before I graduated!  I am going to number these lessons to help keep track of them but they are not in order of importance.

Before Graduating Lesson  1: Learn to fail well

I must confess at the start that I hate failing.  I am extremely competitive.  My dad speaking at my 21st birthday party said, “Paul was our 2nd born child, behind his sister Karyn.  From that moment on Paul never wanted to be 2nd again!”.  When I start failing at something I find myself pretending that I don’t care, arguing about the rules, sulking or all of the above at the same time.  I have written about my struggle completing my Masters in Higher Education and how my poor attitude to failure meant that I graduated 3 years later than expected.  I am a work in progress in this area and that’s why I want to share what I’m learning with you – so that you don’t need to make the same mistakes.

Let’s face it – when have you taken the biggest strides in your life?  Chances are that failure played a key role.  Was it a pleasant experience?  Definitely not at the time!  Ideally though these tough times make you question your motives, examine your view of the world and emerge with greater humility and effectiveness.

At the extreme you can take very different views towards failure.  The aviation industry is used as the poster child for an industry with a mature attitude to failure.  Pilots are encouraged to report near misses as well as material issues that arise.  If accidents happen, independent investigators arrive on the scene and obtain the black box that records all the vital statistics from the flight.  They will publish their findings, test any suggested changes in flight simulators and then all pilots will be quickly informed of any new safety recommendations.  This is an industry that wants to learn from its mistakes.

Contrast this to the medical profession.  There are many medical professionals that are doing an outstanding job.  Nevertheless, as an industry, errors are often explained away as once-off or unavoidable.  There is intense pressure for medical experts to never make mistakes and certainly never admit to making mistakes.  That means that many avoidable mistakes are repeated because proper investigations are a rarity.  Lessons are not learnt.  Failure is wasted.

What is the CA(SA) attitude to failure?  Do we tend towards the aviation or the medical profession attitude? Before you graduate, I sincerely hope that you embrace a mature attitude to failure.  I have already written about Bouncing back from failure but I have been inspired recently by a new source, the outstanding book Black Box Thinking.  The book takes its name from the black box used by the aviation industry to investigate failure and is used as a metaphor to encourage all of us to pay closer attention to the failures in our lives.

Here are a few insights inspired by the book:

  1. Failure is a touchy subject

I don’t like failure and neither do you.  It can be bruising to the ego, demoralising and disappointing.  The more public the failure, the worse.  Remember the kid who took away his cricket ball when he went out?  Were you that kid?  In our postgraduate year at UCT we purposely give all students an exam number so that test results can be published anonymously.  Many of the postgrad students are tutors and before these exam numbers were used, they would be highly embarrassed when the students in their tutorial groups could see their marks!  It is perfectly normal for students to struggle in their postgrad year but for many it is the first time that they ever get before 50% for anything.  That is tough but what made it even worse was then being asked about it in a tut!  It hurts when we fail but as Tim Keller says, “Don’t let success go to your head. Don’t let failure go to your heart“. Having a mature attitude to failure is tough because we feel very vulnerable when we experience failure.

  1. Failure is part of the process

The truth is that none of us can attain excellence without failure.  Failure is part of the process.  If you want to play the guitar superbly, you must be prepared to play badly for a long time.  If you want to become a CA(SA), you will have to get a lot of questions wrong along the way.  Malcolm Gladwell articulated the 10 000 hour rule, the approximate amount of time it takes to become an expert, and a large part of that time needs to be spent doing deliberate practice.  This practice relies on obtaining feedback, correcting errors and then trying again.  I have already written all about how deliberate practice is 1 of the 3 steps you must take in order to grow your talent.  Having a mature attitude to failure is the only way you which you will get better and reach expert level.

  1. Failure highlights where changes are required

We often tell students, “Don’t just work hard, you also need to work smart”.  What does that even mean though?  An approach that makes sense is to identify the points of failure.  At what point do you stop scoring marks in a test?  When do you lose momentum in a task?  Once that failure point is identified, actions can be directed at that point.  Instead of focusing on success, invert the problem, and rather focus on the reasons people fail.  If you can overcome the failure points, you will be well on your way to success.  That is part of what it means to work smart – direct your efforts at the point where the biggest difference can be made.  If you ignore the feedback that failure provides, you are like a soccer player who practices free kicks but never bothers to see where the ball ends up after he has kicked it!  Deliberate practice relies on feedback being incorporated into your next effort so that improvement occurs.  For most CA(SA) students that requires doing questions under exam conditions (I have written about how to improve your exam performance here). Having a mature attitude to failure means directly your efforts at your points of failure.

  1. Failure, in order to be maximized, requires a change in mindset

Working smart means embracing your points of failure and directing your efforts at removing them.  That requires coming face to face with areas that cause frustration, disappointment and embarrassment.  None of us like to do this.  How much better do we feel when we ignore failure and pretend that it was once-off and something that won’t happen again!  In order to move towards the lessons that can be learnt from failure, we need to change our mindset.  This change is what will lead to a sustainable long-term difference in performance.  Carol Dweck has done fantastic research on the Growth Mindset (I have written all about this important concept here) and her work is required reading for anyone who wants to achieve ambitious goals.  In a nutshell, a growth mindset encourages perseverance in the face of failure.  It’s thinking that says “Dig deep, show grit, this is something you can learn from!”  Having a mature attitude to failure means adopting a Growth Mindset.

Graduation is a high moment of celebration; failure might be the furthest thing on your mind.  A large reason for your success however is directly linked to your ability to deal with the valuable lessons that failure has provided.  What lessons have you learnt through failure?  Are you also really bad at failing like me?  Post your thoughts below – I am keen to get better at this through your help!

 

Paul Maughan

5 Comments

  1. Hi Paul,
    Great post. I am doing PGDA this year and i must say, your posts are just what i need to keep going and staying focused. This year has taught me a great deal about embracing failure and really focusing on the problem areas, more specifically WANTING to identify those areas. For example, in the past i would get my test scripts back and didn’t bother reviewing them. I would only read the marker’s comments and the solution when studying for finals. However, now i make sure to properly review test/exam scripts to see where i went wrong and to really learn from my mistakes. While this process is no fun though, it is really beneficial.

    Thanks again

    • Hi Avile – great contribution – especially the practical step of reviewing your test scripts. In the early stages it isn’t fun but over the year as you learn from your mistakes, there are less and less mistakes to learn from as your performance strengthens! In PGDA especially, when study time is precious, you need to prioritise the subjects (and sections) where you need to improve the most. Its so much nicer “shining your diamonds” but that isn’t working smart. Not long to go now before finals, finish strong like Wayde!

  2. Hi Paul
    Great article, I feel like this post was directly aimed at me, the only thing that was missing was name in it :-). I’m currently in my 3rd year and I’m heading for a disastrous year end. And each day I’m asking myself what went wrong and the answer is simple I fail to embrace failure as part of the process and to learn from it. I pretended that it was a once-off it will never happen again like you said and now 75% of the academic year is gone and I’m still singing the same song “it’s a once-off”. I’ve had the medical profession attitude I hope to change this as I dig through the black boxes that I have stashed away. Thank you very much for the post, I will be looking forward to future posts and finally thank you for shedding light for what it means to “work smart”.

    • Hi Nakedi, thank you for taking the time to comment. I am so glad that you have learnt this lesson now – although you feel discouraged that it has only come 75% into the year, you are years ahead of where I was at your age! Feel free to pop in at my office if you ever want to chat. Practice tuts properly and finish the year strong!

  3. Unfortunately popping up into your office won’t be possible, I’m studying at WITS, but thanks for the opportunity though

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