The Difference Between Failure and Goofing Up

The US army experimented with use of camels instead of horses and it failed.

The US Army Camel Corps tried using camels, instead of horses, to deliver supplies. Epic fail! The Camel Express, 1857. Bridgeman Art Library/Universal Images Group. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 8 Jun 2016.

I am all for failure in theory, but I hate when it happens to me! Actually, it isn’t honest failure that I find hard. Most examples of failure, as the word is used today, mean trying hard, missing your goal and persevering. But failure has another side: I’m going to call it goofing up. Honest failure is planning an after-school Sudoko competition, and no one shows up. Goofing up is trying something new, but putting the wrong date on the signs, or not displaying them where students will see them. Honest failure is trying a new trick in a presentation, and concluding viewers find it annoying. Goofing up is throwing a presentation together the night before, and finding mistakes with your audience present.

The Role of Failure

Much has been written about the role of failure, such as the failure experienced by Edison, and failure’s value as a tool towards success. Scientists who struggle can be positive role models. Winston Churchill is credited with saying” “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” The Prototype and Test phases of the design thinking model offer many opportunities to experience failure.

And Then, There is Goofing Up

This 1895 wreck occurred when a conductor, making up for lost time and possibly speeding, entered the station too fast.

Excessive speed and a faulty brake, caused this train to overshoot the station. Train wreck at Montparnasse Station, Paris, France, 1895. Photographer unknown.Studio Lévy and Sons. This work is in the public domain.

Let’s talk for a minute about goofing up. I will reframe this as “learning a lesson the hard way.”  I goofed up the other day, and it’s not fun. I gave inaccurate timing instructions to a proctor, and because of that, a student’s scores were invalidated. He will have to retest on another date. Ouch. There are a few places I was tempted to point the finger: the room was not unlocked (someone else’s responsibility) so I did not have time to double check the notes. The proctor should have confirmed the timing himself. The student might have spoken up to say he had not received extra time before. But ultimately the buck stopped with me.

Tips for Handling Goof Ups

“Learning a lesson the hard way” does offer the opportunity to learn. Here are steps I have found helpful when facing (or ‘fessing up) to a goof. Luckily, I am almost perfect, so I don’t have to use these too often. 🙂

Acknowledge what happened, quickly and completely. I had to tell the parent her child would not receive scores, and would have to retest another time. Try to do this face to face, and as quickly as reasonable. Allow those affected to express their disappointment and frustration. If you think it would be helpful, briefly explain how the mistake happened and/or what steps have been taken to keep it from happening in the future. Other times, saying less is more.

Sincerely apologize, if it fits the situation. Not every goof up requires your personal apology, but some will. A heartfelt “I am so sorry this happened” can go a long way.

Keep administration, and others who are affected, informed. I had to tell my division head that we had a reportable Irregularity. I considered putting off that awkward email for a few days, but decided better he hear it from me, than be caught by surprise with a parent phone call, or hear it through the student grapevine. My experience is that trying to cover up a mistake is hardly ever the right answer.

Take steps to make it right. What can be done to remedy the situation? In the case of a faulty product, I would expect a prompt and pleasant exchange or refund. For the testing situation, I spoke personally with the parent, and gave her contact information to reschedule. I gave her my phone number, and asked her to call me if she had further questions or had trouble rescheduling. I have made myself available to proctor the retest, even though I may end up donating my time.

No One Is Perfect – We Learn From Mistakes

Thank goodness for erasers!

Thank goodness for erasers! Schoolboy Error. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 8 Jun 2016.

When goof ups happen, whether they are personal or those of colleagues, students, family or friends, I remind myself: No one is perfect. Failure serves a purpose. Mistakes keep us humble. They offer a learning opportunity. By modeling how to responsibly handle both honest failure and goof ups, we do a service to students and colleagues alike.

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