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Working Outside Our Comfort Zone

I had a high school teacher, Mr. DeAngelo, who taught writing in the school. He gave us assignments to write a page of prose on some topic of our own choosing. As I recall, he graded that assignment with heavy commentary on syntax and style. (At least, I remember my pages came back heavily marked up!) He then asked us to rewrite the page down to half a page, without losing any of the information in the rewrite. More feedback and critique. The next assignment was to do the same in a quarter of a page. I hated those assignments at the time; I performed horribly. I received low grades and tons of criticism. But the lessons I learned stayed with me (and I subjected graduate students to the same regimen decades later).

He was forcing us to go way out of our comfort zone. We were teaching ourselves through deep text analysis and introspection to identify the critical information needed to convey our thoughts. Each word became a precious resource. We were becoming better writers, but he wasn’t lecturing on how to be a better writer. We were also failing at a high frequency. He took me right up to the point of breakdown, but, then, he picked me up. He taught me that I could recover from failure. Indeed, in the nomenclature of today, he was teaching us how to “fail fast” and repair.

I think these lessons are related to building resilience, an attribute that we want our graduates to obtain through their programs. We want to build students who take risks, without fear of failure, because such risk-taking (wisely governed) produces stronger outcomes. Self-censoring ambition because of fear of failure is the evil we’re trying to avoid.

Discovering that there’s life after failure doesn’t seem to be well-learned by talking about it. Experience seems to be the best teacher on this lesson. So, the puzzle for a university is how to build into a curriculum (whether undergraduate or graduate) experiences that lead to a reduction of fear of failure. We’ve all read of curricular features that have been tried–pass/fail options, ungraded courses, and deliberate grading strategies that are benchmarked to what should be known at the end of the course, not at the moment of the assignment.

The brilliance of Mr. DeAngelo for me was that I learned to give myself permission to fail the first time, because he also gave me skills to pick myself up after the failure.

We want our students to know the material of the course, but we also want them to apply the knowledge without the paralyzing limitations of fear of failure. The course should convey wisdom to discern the degree of risk and to understand what outcomes should be pursued. That knowledge, however, also should be acquired through steps that build resilience.

Resilience to failure and the grit to persevere, leading to judicious risk-taking to attain stronger outcomes–this should be a side benefit of Georgetown instruction. It would be fun to have faculty share stories about how they achieve this. I suspect we can all learn a lot through such a dialogue.

8 thoughts on “Working Outside Our Comfort Zone

  1. Reading this, as a perfectionist when it comes to school work, is really helpful. Failing fast is something I am working on, because you don’t have time to belly-ache in the real world.

    Loved this!

  2. Yes, learning to handle failure in all its forms (disappointment, lack of success in specific projects, unmet self-expectations, doors closed to dreams, etc.) are vital; they help students move forward knowing that the worse that can happen (failure) is nothing to be feared.

    As far as encouraging risk, I remember one eye-opening experience. I gave a project to the groups in my course. It was the second in a series of three. I told them, “O.k., let’s try this. You convince me that you’ve put work into this, that this is something that you’re proud of, I’ll give you an A for it. Don’t play the ‘What does the teacher want?’ game. Take ownership, and do something that you are proud of. ” The results were great and notable in their creativity.

    Regarding challenging students, one complication: our students come with varying degrees of fragility. Some have the “fraud complex”: they are here, they tell themselves, because someone made a mistake, felt sorry for them, knew their parents, needed an athlete, wanted students in their demographic group, etc. Early failures for this group can be crushing and confirming of their worst fears. The challenge is to come up with practices that work for all students, not just the ones with the intellectual confidence and ego strength to bounce back easily from failure. I think one key for doing that is a lot of faculty engagements with students as individuals, one on one face time, so that messages can be adapted to the needs of a particular student. Cura personalis: care for the whole person, and care for the individual person in all his or her uniqueness and particularity.

    • Totally agree. Its the one on one relationship that allows a teaching moment ESPECIALLY when there is doubt and failure.

    • Sigmund Freud who maybe out of style right now did say something simple and profound about success. You measure a person’s success by their ability to work and to love.. Pretty simple but kind of deep. The WHOLE person.

  3. Prof. Jay Branegan (journalism), Prof. Scott Taylor (African Politics), and Prof. Terrence Reynolds (theology) were just a few of those professors for me at Georgetown, and I’ll be forever in their debt for it.

    This is a critical lesson for students. Failure in life is unavoidable; it’s how one reacts to obstacles and challenges that makes for great character.

    Thanks for another great post – I look forward to these!

  4. Fascinating comments. Learning to fail and come back. There is a whole literature on resilience in Psychiatry which is fascinating. I remember a similar prof in Psychiatry who did the same. He would have you write up a case ONLY in one page.. A person’s whole life and their problems in one page. It seemed impossible but it was the best lesson i think i learned in all my training. Or to paraphrase Albert Einstein ” Make things as simple as possible…. if not more simple.” Tough task but a big part of education in academics and in life.

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