Without failure there is no learning

I’m not sure who originally said “without failure there is no learning.”  Google that phrase and you’ll see blog entries both embracing and critiquing that idea. Clearly one function of that saying is to console who has just suffered (or is afraid to soon suffer) failure. At least, that’s how I’m using that mantra at the moment.

I just trashed my third attempt at a “slim” acrylic pen, a gift for a friend. Some people like their pens slender, and in this particular design you end up turning the material down to barely more than a millimeter thick. If there are any stresses in the material, then taking it down that thin tends to release them, causing buckling or bubbling. And if the material is not glued perfectly to the brass tube in the center, it doesn’t take much for a slight imperfection to catch the blade of the chisel and tear a whole chunk of material right off the tube. In theory, I could have 1) drilled more carefully, and 2) glued more carefully, and 3) taken a very fine cut at the end.  Well, I tried #2 and #3, and I’m not sure about #1.  The material simply deformed, and I have no idea whether the glue could have been strong enough to hold it.

OK, so what is the learning: don’t try to turn down thin pens out of acrylic? Clearly it’s theoretically possible (I’ve actually succeeded once or twice at this). If it was really important to me to continue to produce thin acrylic pens, I’d figure out a better way to do it.  (I really do suspect that a cleaner bore with the drill might have strengthened the glue adhesion…).

Now that I’ve got that venting off my chest…

I’ve written before about how failure – or more precisely, experiencing first-hand the consequences of mistakes – does seem to be a better teacher than hours of reading books. I’m starting to wonder, though, what the counter-point is to the “aversive” learning of failure?  For example, I’ve learned (the hard way) what happens when I run too-thin wood through a planer with dull knives (hint – you don’t want to be standing in the line of fire). A few stitches in my finger tip reminded me to be aware of where all 10 digits are when working around an exposed router bit. These are actions I’m highly unlikely to perform again.

Somehow, the sweet feeling of success doesn’t quite “teach” the same way. When I pop a nicely shaped bowl or pen off the lathe, I’m pretty sure I’m not chiseling a “do this again next time” lesson into my brain. I’m satisfied, certainly, but more likely what I want to do is push the boundaries of what I’ve just done. Can I make a variation? What if I try…  and I’m off again, daring failure to teach me another lesson.

Success is certainly motivating.  My own experience (and there’s a nice line of psychological research supporting this) is that after a series of frustrations, I may dial down the challenge a bit just to experience a confidence-boosting success again. And of course, there is the Zen like idea of pursuing an activity for its own enjoyment (the feel of wet wood slicing away under a gouge is so silky smooth…), not worrying about “outcome.”  Hmmm…  yes and no.  I need to ponder that more.

Then, of course, we have the perversity of school failure. We let kids fail all the time, without paying attention to whether they’re optimally challenged, what might support their successes, etc. In some cases we require failure in classrooms; without somebody failing a teacher may be accused of being too “lenient”, whatever that means. In school failure is often not teaching any lesson other than reinforcing that somebody is innately inept.

So, I may attempt a fourth slender pen, being careful each step of the way to construct it as carefully as possible. Or, I may decide to step back and try an easier variation (using wood instead of acrylic – it tends to bond better to the tube – or trying a design with a little more “meat” on it).

That’s it for tonight. I have more thoughts brewing I want to blog about soon, but they’re not quite ready to see the light of day.


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