On Falling Behind, Failing, and Progress

Writer Annie Murphy Paul writes in “How We Make Progress” that rather than a staircase model of learning, in which we steadily climb step after step to the top, a more apt metaphor may be waves on a beach, “where one wave overtakes another and then pulls back, overtaken in turn by another advancing and then receding wave.”

“Research by [Robert] Siegler and others shows that the overlapping waves model applies to learners of all ages, in all manner of subjects. Its image of a series of surging and receding waves is not only a more accurate view of learning than the staircase image; it’s also a more humane and forgiving one.” Read More

We can probably all remember times when we hit what felt like a plateau or even a period of going backwards, only to feel ourselves surging ahead unexpectedly when we least expect it. Allowing for this kind of organic learning was something I appreciated most about our years of homeschooling, as we did not need to adhere to rigid, one-size-fits-all timetables and benchmarks. Watching the natural ebb and flow of our son’s learning showed me that we cannot always force progress at specific times. Sometimes we need to wait. And sometimes we need to fail in order to propel ourselves forward.

Failing as a Prerequisite for Progress

Doll on the Beach, by inajeep
Doll on the Beach, by inajeep (CC BY 2.0)

And then there are those times when we don’t just fall backward: we wash up on shore, perhaps at a different part of the beach from where we began, so that when we start all over again, we are beginning an entirely new journey, with a valuable new perspective and opportunity. Novelist Marie-Helene Bertino writes about just such an experience in her essay “Failure as Muse“:

“If I had never failed at being a poet, I might never have tried writing fiction. If I had never tried fiction, I never would have assembled an impressive amount of ecru-colored rejections that still make me feel like a real writer, or been given the opportunity to fail spectacularly at ghostwriting novels with the nutritional value of a pack of matches. Most importantly, I never would have written a novel, the publication of which affords me the opportunity to tell this story at festivals, at readings, and right here, on the website of this magazine.” Read More

Being willing to fail is one of the most important aspects of creativity. A good exercise is to reframe our perceived failures as opportunities:

If I had never failed at ________________, I might have never have  _______________.

 How would you fill in the blanks? (I will post my own answer in the comments.)

1 thought on “On Falling Behind, Failing, and Progress

  1. An example from my own life is my education. I had just received my M.A. in Literary Studies and was starting a Ph.D. program when our son was born. Although my plan had been to continue in the program (and to continue teaching at the same time—what was I thinking?), I soon knew that I wanted instead to stay with him while he was young. That decision led within a couple of years to freelance writing—something that I could do from home—as well as book indexing.

    Later, when our son was in college, I considered trying a different doctoral program and even took a graduate course in developmental psychology as a preliminary step. While I relished being back in the classroom and had the satisfaction of knowing I could do the work, I realized that I would be getting the degree for the sake of getting the degree, just to finish something I felt I had abandoned, even though it wasn’t something I even wanted anymore. Worse, the time spent getting the degree would have prevented me from focusing on my writing career as I have these past few years, and I would feel pressured to use the degree in a much more specialized way than what I now know I enjoy.

    Here is how I would fill in the blanks:

    If I had never failed at my goal of getting a Ph.D., I might never have embarked on a writing and indexing career nor have had the opportunity to work from home, on my own schedule, which I love more than I can say.

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