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To Become an Expert: Learn to Fail to Learn

Strategy

To Become an Expert: Learn to Fail to Learn image boy crying at desk 200x300I’ve just begun reading Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, which examines what’s happening in our heads when we’re making decisions and the role dopamine plays in connecting our decision-making to our emotions and our system’s desire to recognize patterns for better and for worse.

One research citing in the book struck me as particularly fascinating as it made me consider how as children our futures as good decision-makers or “experts” may already be defined for us by something as innocuous as the words of praise we receive from parents or teachers.

Several years back Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, and her team ran an experiment in NYC with 5th graders, conducting several rounds of exams. The first round was a relatively easy exam after which each student was given their score and either praised for their intelligence or their effort. Then, they were offered the choice of taking a more difficult test, where they were told they would learn a lot, or a test that was about the same level of difficulty as the first.

Next, Dweck gave the same group of students an exam designed for 8th graders, making it extremely difficult. After taking the test, students were asked to choose between seeing exams of other students who scored better or worse than they did on the same exam.

Finally, the students were given a round of tests similar in difficulty to the initial round and were asked to self-report their scores.

Of the group praised for their intelligence:

  • The majority chose the easier exam in round 2.
  • In round 3, the 8th grade exam, the majority got frustrated and easily discouraged.
  • They almost always chose to see exams from students who scored worse, seeking comfort for their shaken confidence.
  • Their average final exam scores compared to initial exam scores decreased by 20%.
  • Almost 90% lied when self reporting their final test score.

Of the group praised for their efforts:

  • 90% chose the harder test in round 2.
  • In round 3, the 8th grade exam, they worked hard and often, unprovoked, exclaimed things like “This is my favorite test.”
  • They almost always chose to see exams from students who scored better, helping them understand their mistakes.
  • Their average final exam scores compared to initial exam scores rose by 30%.
  • About 10% lied when self reporting their final test score.

So what does all this have to do with being or becoming an expert? Well, it shows that failure is necessary and, I would even say, vital to the process of learning. Without failing our brains can’t properly work out the patterns that reveal the best solutions because they don’t have enough information from which to formulate the correct answers or drive us to make good decisions.

Dweck’s research shows that our desire to learn is highly influenced by the feedback we receive. In her research like in most learning situations, Dweck’s feedback sparks each child’s desire either to learn or to succeed; those inspired to do the former embrace exploration and the possibility of failure rather than fearing failure and opting for what might be thought of as “the safe bet.”

It is this willingness to fail that encouraged 90% of the effort-praised 5th graders to attempt the more difficult round 2 exam, and drove almost all of them to learn from their mistakes by comparing their exams to those who scored better than they in round 3. And, in the end, it’s the defining factor in why they become more proficient and expert while their intelligence-praised classmates actually decreased in proficiency.

Without a willingness to fail and learn from failure one cannot gather the information needed to identify the best solution for success. Expertise results from innately recognizing patterns for success, which itself is not possible without a preponderance of information and/or experience within or among a given field or function or set of disciplines.

If you’re an expert or want to be seen as one, you need to understand the patterns that govern your success so you can communicate your expertise in a way that makes sense to clients, customers, colleagues and/or employers. Consider:

  • What lessons you continue to apply in your work from earlier “failures” or mistakes.
  • If you have a formula, process or outline for clients, your business or yourself to achieve success, how and/or why do you know it works?

And, if you need help with defining, refining or translating your expertise for your business or career, please don’t hesitate to get in touch; I’m always happy to put my expertise to work for you.

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