Not so fragile

Do you know what happens when you apply strain to healthy human muscles? They grow stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on healthy human bones? They grow stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on a healthy human immune system? It gets stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on a wine glass? It breaks.

That’s because a wine glass is fragile. Humans are antifragile.

Antifragile is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe the properties of an object, system or being that gets stronger ­– more resilient, when exposed to moderate stressors.

And because resilience is such a foundational element of wellbeing, it would be negligent of educators and parents to deprive students of the chance to fail, or to shield them from healthy doses of guilt, fear, frustration, disappointment, sadness, and loss.

Because we are antifragile, these experiences tend to make us stronger – in the long run.

Of course, it’s natural to want our children and students to be safe and happy – all the time. But ironically, the more we try to protect them, the more we may risk doing them harm in the long run.

Second serve

With Wimbledon under way again we’re reminded what a graceful, exciting and, at times, quirky sport tennis is.

One of the quirkiest aspects is the serve. You get two serves – two attempts – every time. If you miss the first one, no worries, you get another go. Is there any other mainstream sport in the world where you are allowed to completely mess up, without any form of penalty, and have another try? Golf would be a very different game if you could have another go at hitting that putt you just missed. And soccer would be so much less stressful if you were allowed to freely retake a missed penalty shot.

One of the benefits of a second serve in tennis is that it allows players to push the threshold of possibility with their first serve. Risk is all but eliminated. Players hit the first serve with a physical freedom rarely seen in other sports because there is incentive to: the chance of an ‘ace’. And because there is almost no incentive to hold back. There is no fear of failure.

When we are incentivised to push ourselves to the limit of our abilities and we are freed of any fear of failure, we end up with a recipe for excitement and peak human performance.

I wonder how different our classrooms would feel if students were always allowed a second serve?

Which story – achievement or failure?

Of course, as educators, we want our students to achieve. And we want them to push themselves, to strive beyond their current ability, to take risks and to embrace failure as an essential part of learning and of doing anything worthwhile.

But which message is the loudest? Which story are your students hearing? Which do they perceive as more important? Achievement or failure?

Because achievement is easy. You just choose the easy task. When we don’t have to try very hard, we rarely fail.

Risk, failure & flow

The psychological phenomenon known as flow‘ is characterised by complete absorption on a task. When in flow, our attentional awareness becomes entirely focussed on a single action, so much so that:

“Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. All aspects of performance –mental and physical – go through the roof.”

Steven Kotler, Director of Research,  Flow Genome Project

In classrooms, the neurochemical and neurophysiological changes generated by flow states can have a huge impact on creativity, learning and performance. But our students can only be in flow when they are pushed to their limits – or slightly beyond. Working at this threshold, approximately 4% outside of our current capability, is risky – failure is a real possibility.

And this is why schools need to orientate themselves as learning institutions rather than performance institutions. When the explicit goal is to learn, risk and failure are normalised, tolerated, and even celebrated. When the goal is to perform, we foster a natural aversion to risk and failure.

The best educators create classroom environments where students feel safe and embrace risk.

Failing never feels nice. But flow does – and accelerated, exciting learning definitely does.

Bad ideas

“Most of the successful people I know have tons of bad ideas.”

— Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram.

This is as true in education as it is in entrepreneurship. Success and leadership is less about always being right or always having the great idea — and more about being willing to be wrong and having the courage to pivot at the right time.