Little bets that fail lead to big successes
I just finished reading Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries. I’m not sure that there’s enough new information in the book to give it a full-throated recommendation, but it does re-crystalize the need to develop a classroom culture that recognizes and even celebrates failure as the key to learning. And certainly, this needs to be part of my metacognition curriculum.
Here are a few quotes from the book that make this point clear:
Of course the subject of affordable losses highlights a key issue with the little bets approach—it inevitably involves failure. In almost any attempt to create, failure, and often a good deal of it, is to be expected.
By expecting to get things right at the start, we block ourselves psychologically and choke off a host of opportunities to learn. In placing so much emphasis on minimizing errors or the risk of any kind of failure, we shut off chances to identify the insights that drive creative progress.
Successful experimental innovators, as we’ll next explore, tend to view failure as both inevitable and instrumental in pursuing their goals.
But one of the most important lessons of the study of experimental innovators is that they are not rigid in pursuit of that vision, and that they persevere through failures, often many of them.
In other words, when the performers switched from structured music to improvised jazz, the part of their brain responsible for evaluating and censoring their behavior effectively switched off. As respected neuroscience expert and author Jonah Lehrer described the study, “It was only by ‘deactivating’ this brain area—inhibiting their inhibitions, so to speak—that the musicians were able to spontaneously invent new melodies.”
Invention and discovery emanate from being able to try seemingly wild possibilities and work in the unknown; to be comfortable being wrong before being right; to live in the world as a keen observer, with an openness to experiences and ideas; to play with ideas without censoring oneself or others; to persist through dark valleys with a growth mind-set; to improvise ideas in collaboration and conversation with others; and, to have a willingness to be misunderstood, sometimes for long periods of time, despite conventional wisdom.
The book gives a number of great examples of how successful people implement the “Little Bets” strategy, including Chris Rock, who constantly tests out stand-up material in small clubs, making small refinements, until he develops an hour-long routine that will be a success on an HBO special, and Pixar Studios, which has built its entire culture around growth mindset—getting all employees to see that there’s no penalty for offering constructive criticism, and getting everyone to the point of sharing sooner—offering sketches and drafts for feedback, which are more open to criticism, rather than finished products, which seems very applicable to school as well.
One idea I’ve had for how I can work to further develop this culture in my classroom is to devote a part of my classroom walls to this effort. I’m thinking about having a sign that reads “Make little bets on failure to achieve big success.” Then, below this sign, I’d post examples of little bets on failure from both popular culture (Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team, for example), but even more importantly, I’d like for students to be comfortable putting up their own examples—”I didn’t fully get vectors until February.”
What ideas do you have for helping students to see failure as a critical part of learning?