Failure is an integral part of learning. New information, ideas, models and theories take time to sink in and there are many bumps on the way to understanding and mastering. But somehow we feel that everyone else has understood while we are still confused. In today's world where image and competition are so important and your Facebook or LinkedIn feeds are crammed with everyone else's success stories, it's easy to get depressed about your own imagined shortcomings. I think many of us recognise the imposter syndrome, the fear of some day being revealed to be incompetent or a fake. The common dream of turning up to work and realising you forgot to put on your trousers comes to mind.
However, the truth seems to be that most people feel anxious about their struggles to grasp new knowledge and if we could only drop the mask of self-confidence that we feel obliged to wear, we could learn so much more. We advertise our successes and hide our failures; very understandable but we could gain a lot by being more open, at least in trusted circles. This theme is discussed in an article on Opensource.com, Why failure should be normalized and how to do it.
All of your heroes have failures under their belts—from minor mistakes to major disasters. Nobody knows how to do everything automatically, and the process of learning is usually a messy one. So why is the perception that everyone but you knows what they’re doing so common? Why do we externalize our successes but internalize our failures?
A learning community can thrive on being able to admit failure and confusion and helping each other to find solutions. This demands a sense of trust and a spirit of collaboration and teamwork, something that takes time and careful facilitation to develop. If a class of students see themselves as a team and work together to make sure everyone learns from the course, then this spirit is achievable. But sadly the education system is based on competition between individuals and therefore this team spirit can be hard to achieve even if both teachers and students agree on the advantages. Finding ways to assess and grade both individual effort and the overall teamwork could help shift the focus away from simple competition.
Sometimes we can learn more from discussing failures than listening to best practice but first we need to create a context where it's acceptable to admit your shortcomings. I've seen several interesting failure conferences that invite speakers to describe less successful projects and then get feedback from colleagues on how to improve. I find this idea more attractive than best practice conferences that often have the opposite effect. Listening to impressive descriptions of successful projects often make me feel so inadequate rather than inspiring me. I remember a keynote from an extreme adventurer (triathlons are for kids etc.) that was meant to inspire us to greater efforts but left me feeling exhausted and completely useless. The problem with academic conferences is that they are primarily celebrations of success and a conference paper about a failed research study or project might not look so good on your CV.
So the challenge is to create a climate of trust, sharing and mutual support in a class, project or department where asking for help is expected and welcomed. We're are after all human and perfection is unattainable. The article concludes:
Most importantly, we need to normalize that it’s okay not to know everything, that it’s okay to still be learning, and to ask for help. Setting an example for new or more junior engineers is important. In our industry, we deal with extremely complex systems that can interact with one another in strange or unexpected ways. In many cases, it is simply not possible for one person to know everything. Being open about our learning processes and our mistakes can lead to tighter bonding.