In Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up Jonah Lehrer believes that "if we can train our brains to embrace failure, we open ourselves to new discoveries."
Kevin Dunbar, director of The Laboratory for Complex Thinking and Reasoning at the University of Toronto, is a researcher that studies how scientists study things (Lehrer, 83). Dunbar found in his studies that
Science is a deeply frustrating pursuit. Although the researchers were mostly using established techniques, more than 50 percent of their data was unexpected. [...] Dunbar was fascinated by these statistics. The scientific process, after all, is supposed to be an orderly pursuit of the truth, full of elegant hypotheses and control variables. [...] However, when experiments were observed up close [...] this idealized version of the lab fell apart, replaced by an endless supply of disappointing surprises. There were models that didn't work and data that couldn't be replicated and simple studies riddled with anomalies. "These weren't sloppy people," Dunbar says. "They were working in some of the finest labs in the world. But experiments rarely tell us what we think they're going to tell us. That's the dirty secret of science." (Lehrer, 83)
Lehrer identifies four steps to help learn what these failed experiments are telling us (Lehrer, 85):
- Check your assumptions - did the experiment or the hypothesis fail?
- Seek out the ignorant - a fresh set of eyes
- Encourage diversity - use a fresh set of eyes that has a different perspective and different assumption biases
- Beware of failure blindness - do not ignore information that contradicts our preconceptions
The ability and willingness to embrace failure applies to all exploration and learning efforts.
As a teenager trying to improve as a snow skier, my brothers, friends, and myself used to compete to see who would have the most spectacular wipe-out of the day. If it ended up that you had to be stretchered off the mountain by the Ski Patrol then you were the uncontested winner. Did we want to end up dead, mangled, or down for the rest of the season? Definitely not. However, we didn't want the fear of failure, of wiping out, to prevent us from pushing ourselves and improving. We measured our success not by how long we stayed on our feet but by what new tricks and maneuvers we learned. And, by our definition, if you weren't failing then you weren't pushing against your boundaries and learning what you are capable of.
- Lehrer, Jonah. Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up. Wired magazine. Jan 2010.