Learn Like a Toddler

28 Apr

Two weeks ago, I watched a toddler climb to the top of my stairs, and immediately begin to climb back down.  She was quick and full of enthusiasm to conquer the stair mountain.

But the steps were a little too large for her tiny legs, and she tripped on one and fell headfirst.  Luckily, her mom was right beneath to catch her.

What did she do next?  She ran right back up the stairs to climb down again.  In fact, she climbed up and down those stairs more than ten additional times.

Adults are programmed to avoid failure, but we don’t start out that way.  My wonderful school psychologist used to tell the staff, “think about how many times children fall while learning to walk.  Have we ever seen a child who gave up and decided walking just wasn’t for him?”  No, of course not (children may give up momentarily, but not permanently).  Walking is an incredibly difficult task for someone whose leg muscles are still developing and whose head is disproportionately large (compared to adults), but children try, try, and try again until they get it right.

How do they get that resilience?  Children are very motivated, and they do usually have a lot of support, but small children are also buffeted by failure on a daily basis.  For a 2 year old, failure is a part of life–not something shameful or hurtful.  They are protected from the negative psychological aspects of failure by its sheer frequency, and are free to reap the ultimate rewards of failing at something repeatedly–learning and succeeding.

There are a lot of examples of famous individuals failing their way to success nowadays, from Michael Jordan, to Oprah, to Einstein.

J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard was on the importance of failure.

But all failure is not created equal.  There are some important differences between people who fail well, and those who just…fail.

1. Those who fail well…try again.

Sir James Dyson had 5,126 failed versions of his vacuum cleaner before he found success on the 5,127th try.  Randy Nelson, of Pixar University, talks about how the core of innovation is not failure-avoidance, it’s error recovery.  

There’s little benefit to failing if you then give up.  The benefit comes from getting up and trying again.

2.  Those who fail well…redefine failure as information-gathering or a challenge.  

When asked how he endured such a string of failures without giving up, Dyson said, “We have to embrace failure and almost get a kick out of it. Not in a perverse way, but in a problem-solving way. Life is a mountain of solvable problems and I enjoy that.”  

There’s no such thing as failure in the scientific process–instead you “disprove a hypothesis” which provides you with more information so you can move forward.

3. Those who fail well…reflect and iterate.

Failing well doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over until you succeed.  That toddler I mentioned in the beginning?  The second time she tried to go down the stairs, she asked her mother to hold one hand for balance.  She practiced with this new support multiple times before she attempted (and succeeded!) at descending solo again.

Iteration is a core principal of design thinking, an increasingly popular approach to solving problems and fostering creativity.



The language of design thinking, “ideate,” “prototype,” and “test,” imply that a solution is almost never “perfect” or “complete.”  Everything is a work in progress–a much different way of framing a task than the binary “failure” or “success.”

What happens that takes away children’s resilience to failure, they’re innate tendency to see a roadblock as something temporary on their road to success?  Maybe it’s the adults.  When we start putting an emphasis on the “final score,” or “grade,” children receive the message that failure is bad.  Rather than spurring creativity, or being part of the learning process, failure becomes a signal that they are intellectually, physically, or sometimes even morally deficit.

Failure is inevitable in a lifetime.  Repeated failure.  The question becomes, how are we going to react to it?  When that two-year-old fell down the stairs, the adults’ reaction was encouragement and support.  It was more impressive that she had failed and tried again than if she’d effortlessly run down the first time.  No one really cared if she got down these stairs this time–it was her enthusiasm and the process that mattered.

So in the future, I’ll try to keep her in mind.  I’ll try to learn like a toddler.  


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