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I love the acronym that my friend Gabriella Horak from What's Your Edge? uses for FAIL - First Attempt In Learning. It's just so appropriate, and encapsulates what we intrinsically know about learning (because we have all been children at some stage). We learn by trying things and failing at them. The reason we are so quick to learn so much as children is because we allow ourselves to fail in order to learn. We intrinsically understand that.

But at some stage we grow our ego. We become aware that others are watching. We learn to try to hide our failures. And so the pace of our learning is slowed. We try to compensate for that by reading and learning from others’ insights.  This can work for highly intellectual and abstract topics, but doesn’t work nearly as well for most of our understanding.

I remember as a high school teenager having learnt about the internal combustion engine.  I could recite all the components needed to make it work, and talk through a description of its cycle: Intake, Compression, Power and Exhaust.  But it was only when I actually pulled apart my own car’s engine to witness the engine’s complexity myself, and then had to reassemble it to get my car back on the road did I truly understand how the whole thing worked and the engineering magic it embodied.  There were many, many failures along that journey of discovery for me.  But I still remember them and their lessons over 30 years later.  That is true learning.


"Fast learning comes from fast failure."


In a similar vein, trying to learn a new language is impossible unless we are willing to open our mouths and speak, all the while knowing that we will sound silly. But the courage to do an immersive experience to learn a language, where we know we will "fail" every time we open our mouths, is definitely the fastest way to become fluent.

Let’s look at some insights from some of the worlds greatest “failures”.

WD40: WD40 was the fortieth attempt at the formula to create a degreaser and rust protection fluid.  That’s a lot of failures before they got the product “just right”.

Bubble Wrap: Bubble Wrap was initially an attempt to create an interestingly textured wallpaper.  The inventors then tried to sell it as home insulation.  It took IBM to use it to protect computers during shipment for it to become the success it is today.

Pacemaker: The pacemaker as we now know it was invented when Wilson Greatbach accidentally used the wrong sized resistor as he was building a recording device.  When he listened to his “failure” of a recorder, it sounded like a heartbeat.  That was his inspiration to build the device that now keeps around 3 million people alive.

If we can all embrace the concept that fast learning comes from fast failure, we will create a world not only of rapid innovation and learning, but also a much happier and emotionally safe society.

That would be great for everyone.

Author: Brett Cowan, Executive Director, AgileXperts.


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