Failing to Learn


Have your kids failed enough today? You might think that they fail too much every day. But what about celebrating some of those failures instead of just correcting or chastising them? That’s what the father of billionaire entrepreneur Sara Blakely did on a daily basis. She shares this routine confessional of her childhood in the Inc article “Billionaire CEO Sara Blakely Says These 7 Words Are the Best Career Advice She Ever Got” (thanks Karen) which is also echoed in her interview above:

  • “Yet when asked what the best advice she ever received was, she doesn’t talk about success. Instead, she talks about how, as a child, her father would sit her down at the dining room table and ask her the same question: ‘What did you fail at this week?’ He didn’t want to know how many As she’d gotten. He wasn’t interested in how many girl scout cookies she’d sold, how many goals she’d scored on her soccer team, or whether she’d gotten a perfect score on her math test. No, he wanted to know what she had failed at. And when she told him, do you know what his reaction was? He high-fived her.”

The documentary film ‘Race To Nowhere” looks the stresses on children to succeed in education these days highlighted the same message in the review by Cynthia Joyce”

  • “There’s a key scene in the documentary ‘Race to Nowhere’ when a high school student asks, ‘If I can’t fail, and make mistakes, then how can I be expected to learn?’ Such a question might earn a stern slap on the wrist from ‘Tiger Mom’ Amy Chua. But it’s an astute observation and one that drives home the main point of the film: that our preoccupation with testing and performance has undermined actual learning in the classroom, and may even be threatening the healthy development of kids, who frequently feel overwhelmed by the pressure to excel at all costs.”

These comments reminded me of a “Working Families” conference where I presented a paper. Lancashire (Gen Y) student on the panel provided the obverse perspective of not embracing failure in one’s childhood:

  • “Generation Y have grown up having never had to deal with failure (because often you got an award for just showing up) and as a result they often have difficulty taking critical feedback. I remember when I first failed at something at school, it nearly crushed me. There is a fragility in Gen Y that comes from this lack of having to confront failure.”



Changing the Water

Coffee 2

International Coffee Day today. And I love a good metaphor about as much as a steaming hot cuppa in the morning (stove-top brewed with freshly ground medium roast, extra hot latte with two sweeteners). So for the occasion, a great analogy on embracing failure.

  • · “A young woman went to her grandmother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed that as one problem was solved, a new one arose. Her grandmother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came …to a boil. In the first, she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs, and the last she placed ground coffee beans. She let them sit and boil, without saying a word…Her grandmother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity — boiling water — but each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior. But, after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water. ‘Which are you?’ she asked her granddaughter. ‘When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg, or a coffee bean?’… How do you handle adversity? Are you changed by your surroundings or do you bring life, flavor, to them?

Embracing All Days

Gapingvoid - another day

  • “Walt Disney was told to scrap Mickey Mouse (they thought a giant mouse would scare women). Steven Speilberg and Albert Einstein were rejected from the schools they applied to. Charles Darwin’s own dad thought he was lazy and wouldn’t amount to much. The world would miss out on an awful lot, if we let the bad days hold us back.” – Hugh MacLeod

Today is National Lazy Day, but judging by my posting here you could say that I’ve had many lazy days. I’ve gone the longest period in the decade of this blog without posting (27 June was last post). Part of the reason is the distractions of the summer. Part of it is getting going a number of other new sites and blogs – Forclairty, Dog Golf, Adaptive Rowing UK. Things are starting to settle a bit and I thought that today’s “lazy day” would be a great time to get going. As Hugh says, if I fail to get everything done today, there’s always another day.

Embracing Reboot

Computer error messages

Vitality shows not only in the ability to persist, but in the ability to start over." – F. Scott Fitzgerald

CTL-ALT-DEL. The symbol of computer failure is possibly its most powerful feature. The reboot. When all has gone wrong, when all else fails, you can turn it off and on again. And the vast majority of the time that sets things right.

If only life were so simple. Which is what Mark Ward muses in his piece “Beginning Again

  • Beginning starts with a full stop. Like rebooting a blky computer, we need to disrupt the scripts and simply be present to ourselves; unrated, unevaluated, unjudged. Let the busy mind settle down: enter into a moment where we are not awaiting, not hoping, not longing; just welcoming, accepting. Here we find a moment of the what Buddhists call ‘maitri’, a complete acceptance or unconditional friendship with ourselves as we are. It is not a matter of fixing or improving some debility, making up for some lack; rather a settled awareness of an appreciation for who we are.”

Maybe we can program ourselves to be a bit more resilient like computers by embracing failure…and re-booting from time to time.

Dilbert - reboot

Turing AI to Advantage

I have sometimes been a bit ahead of my time, but perhaps never more so than my career in artificial intelligence. I was working in a “AI Alley” (Kendall Square, Cambridge Massachusetts) building expert systems 3 decades ago. The industry went through a boom but then a bust and largely retreated from being a darling of venture capitalists to being an esoteric branch of computer science academics.  Until recently.

I’ve always been intrigued by visionaries who were years, if not decades or even centuries ahead of their time – Leonardo da Vinci, Antoni Gaudi, Frank Lloyd Wright.  One of those individuals is Alan Turing whose birthday is today. A persecuted homosexual, you could say he was ahead of his time both in identity as well as intellect. Celebrated in the film the “Imitation Game” about the development of the war-changing “Enigma Machine”, he is largely considered the “father of intelligent systems”. His “Turing Test” remains the essential benchmark for artificial “intelligence”.

Like many innovations, people over-estimated the short-term possibilities of artificial intelligence and under estimated the long-term ones. While over blown claims of inflated business plans disappointed in the eighties, simple algorithms (the heart of AI) would nonetheless slowly come to automate so many aspects of daily living from the mundane to the complex. Now, instead of people dismissing AI, people are fearing it taking over the world.

Fortunately, experts like Stuart Russell have an answer for this dystopian possibility – embracing failure. While the entire ethos of computer engineering seems to be about making systems smarter and smarter, his TED lecture argues that the most powerful attribute might be ignorance. Programming ignorance into these advanced, intelligence systems to save the human race…

  • The second law is a law of humility, if you like. And this turns out to be really important to make robots safe. It says that the robot does not know what those human values are, so it has to maximize them, but it doesn’t know what they are. And that avoids this problem of single-minded pursuit of an objective. This uncertainty turns out to be crucial.”

It is particularly appropriate that he dubs this principle the “law of humility” as “humility” is the virtue of embracing failure.


Robot news

Reef Madness

Coral Reef video

The Atlantic’s piece “A Coral Reef Revival” combined a bit of failure serendipity with failure positive impact to provide marine biologist with new insights to helping the world’s ocean coral reefs facing their own Anthropocene mortality

  • “To see that it took three years to get the size of something we thought would be worthwhile doing something with, that’s what got me disappointed that I literally took it off the higher level of the aquarium and put it on the bottom of the aquarium thinking that this was no longer a process worth pursuing. And when I went to move that one, it broke. And I thought that was really going to stress and hurt that coral. The few little polyps left behind I a pile of little in a little calcium carbonate skeleton – I think my statement was ‘These things are toast’. They’re not going to make it. Two weeks later, I went to check on it and the piece that had the dime sized hole in it had completely grown back to the size that it was previously. And that size dime took two years to produce from a larvae. That was incredible. So much so that even though the tank that it came from was only a few steps away, I literally ran back to the other tank where the other 3 polyps were left behind. They had also grown back and multiplied to a dozen or more polyps and were also back to the size of a nickel or a dime.”

Learning to Die

Gapingvoid - get comfortable


World Environment Day today comes on the heels of one of the biggest setbacks in eco-sustainability with the exit by Trump from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. A dramatic move in an increasing fraught issue. The controversy has inspired plenty of heated debate and viewpoints. But perhaps none so extreme as the New York Times piece a while back titled “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene”.  A wholehearted embrace of failure, it asserts that the only way to save humanity is to “kill” it (a bit of metaphor involved there)…

  • Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence. The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality. The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear. If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.”

The civilization is dead. Long live the civilisation.