Afraid to Fail

Why do we become more afraid of failure as we grow up? Had we given up as children after the first failure none of us would speak, walk or tie our own shoe laces! Why aren’t adults as happy to iteratively learn from mistakes?

There is a famous experiment where teams of adults were asked to construct a tower from spaghetti, one yard of tape and a single marshmallow. The challenge was to create a tower to hold the marshmallow as high off the table as possible … in 20 minutes. Initially designed as a team building exercise, it was meant to highlight different personal characteristics of individuals of the team (for example, highlighting natural leaders, project managers, architects, etc.).

The scientists recorded the results of all participating teams and then decided to widen the demographics to children, etc.. The result surprised everyone; the children won. Significantly.

The reason was simple. Rather than sit around and discuss who should do what, design the tower, etc. the children immediately started to build prototypes of towers. They would then identify problems and refine the design, progressing each time. The adults attempted to solve the problem in one step, often leaving it too long to construct the tower and failing the task completely.

The only adult group that outperformed kindergarten children was that of architects and engineers! Thank goodness. Business school students were among the worst performing groups.

Success is not about getting things perfect first time, it is about starting with an idea and not being too proud to refine and modify that idea to maximise its full potential. Failure merely gives us an opportunity to learn and should be embraced.

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