Failures, mistakes, stupidity – foundations of success in academia

oops2Earlier this term I read a one page article, The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research. The article proclaims the importance of – nay – the imperative of learning from mistakes as a valuable education path. The author describes his astonishment that a very bright fellow PhD student gave up a career path because it made her feel stupid. His own perspective was that the most interesting problems were those that were very difficult to solve, and that that was why he was going to get a PhD at the end of his dissertation work. It reminds me of Marilla Svinicki’s talk last year at the Presidents’ Colloquium, in which she advised the importance of teaching students how to fail so they could learn the process of picking themselves up again and carrying on. To what extend do we explicitly encourage students in this regard? Maybe Buckminster Fuller had the right idea when he said,

If I ran a school, I’d give the average grade to the ones who gave me all the right answers, for being good parrots. I’d give the top grades to those who made a lot of mistakes and told me about them, and then told me what they learned from them.

Of course, that’s only for our students, right? And yet, to what extent do we model that failure is a temporary (and enlightening) set-back? I wonder how many of us have submitted an article and then let the revisions lie for months (or longer?) because the reviews seemed negative? How many times do we submit for a grant or award and get turned down – only to never think of applying again? How many times do we truly admit to our students “I don’t know” – and join in an inquiry process with them to find out?

Benjamin Zander, conductor of both the Boston symphony orchestra and the youth orchestra, exhorts young musicians to celebrate mistakes as a way of getting out of the cyclical process of self abuse for errors made. His recommendation that we throw our arms in the air and shout “hurray, a mistake!” might be a bit disconcerting in some circles, but the general idea is good: Mistakes are steps along a path to eventual (and perhaps enhanced) success. In a wonderful TED lecture, Ken Robinson reminds us, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything creative.”

Still worried about making mistakes? Smile instead on John Kenneth Galbraith’s reminder that “If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.”

Scwartz, M. A. (2008). The importance of stupidity in research. Journal of Cell Science, 121, 1771.

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Nicola Simmons

As Research and Evaluation Consultant, Nicola Simmons supports the design and implementation of research about teaching and learning at UW. In addition to co-ordinating the Teaching-based Research Group (TBRG) and LIF/PIF grants program, she assists faculty members with research-related activities: grant proposals, ethics proposals, conference proposals, and publications. Nicola pursues her own research in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), doctoral student and new faculty identity development, reflective practice, and qualitative research methods and ethics, and holds a number of research grants related to program evaluation. Nicola is also a graduate advisor and teaches part-time in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, where she received her PhD for her study What’s different under the gown: New professors’ constructions of their teaching roles. Nicola and her husband, who live in Burlington, have a musical son and a horse-crazy daughter. Her hobbies include making willow furniture and judging science fairs.

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