Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Learning from failure -- in science communication and in life! Guest blog by Jill Caviglia-Harris

KC: Jill Caviglia-Harris is a Professor of Economics at Salisbury University in Maryland and a Leopold Leadership colleague. Her story about her son had me guffawing out loud and learning some critical lessons about science communication. Since her original post on the Leopold 3.0 blog didn’t contain the story, I asked to share it on CHANS Lab Views.

As a Leopold Leadership Fellow, I am interested in learning more on how to communicate research findings and make an impact on current day environmental policy.  In the last year, I have honed in on the secret sauce by researching, practicing, and writing blog posts on how to make compelling presentations and tell captivating stories while abiding by the rules of great design. That is where Kai comes in -- after reading my “5 Secrets of Captivating Storiesand the application of these lessons Kai wanted to read the speech I had created for an honors society induction for a large preparatory school in my area. My charge was to motivate the students to continue along their positive academic path, go to college, and succeed in life. Clearly, these students were already highly motivated. How could I inspire them further? I decided on a story about my son, Solomon, that illustrated the message that in life it’s ok to fail — it’s just not ok not to learn from failure.  What follows here is that speech:

The Secret to College Success
Jill Caviglia-Harris
Cum Laude Honors Society Induction Ceremony, Worcester Preparatory School
April 23, 2014

I am here today to talk with you about success.  Success in school and success in life.  How many of you that are here today are planning to attend college?  How many of you plan to drop out of college?  No one plans to drop out of college, but do you know that 40% of students that enroll in college do not graduate in 4 years?  The number drops when we look out over 6 years, but still about 30% do not graduate.  That means that about between 30-40% of those you in this room that plan to attend college will not make it.  Now, I know that you’re thinking that is not me…She’s not talking to the right crowd.  We’re all graduating from college.  We’re honors students from an elite preparatory school.  But, whether you want to believe or not, 30 to 40% of honor students do not make it through college.  Harvard…. the statistics hold for this university, one that is filled with students that excelled in school.

The question is then how do I succeed in college when so many before me have not?   I'm here to tell you that I know the secret…But before my big reveal I’m going to tell you a story.

This story is about my son, Solomon.  He’s 9 now.  This story takes place when he was in kindergarten.  He was just as strong-willed, determined, and tireless as he is today at nine.  He is driven, and always wants to win.  It was Field Day and he wanted me to attend, and if I couldn’t make it for the full day I had to be there in the afternoon when they would race to determine the fastest kindergartener. Well, he really wanted first place…he wanted it so badly that he had his grandparents from both sides come in from out of town, had my husband and I make sure to be there at the race time, and practiced every day on the playground for a month.  From these practices he learned there was only one kid he had to worry about.  There was only one kid that occasionally beat him. 

On Field Day they ran heats for the 5 kindergarten classes; the top three from each class were in the final race.  By the time that I arrived I learned of these results.  He was first in his class.  Race time arrived by late afternoon and the 15 kids lined up to take off at the sound of a whistle… and as it turns out my son took about 10 paces and fell down.  He came in second-to-last place.  As we walked back into the school I could see his anger: his fists were clenched, he wouldn’t let me touch him.  I struggled to figure out what to say to him.  I could have told him that I was disappointed, but really, what parent would do that (and how much really was at stake)?  I could tell him that he would do better next time, but that felt so shallow.  Instead, I asked him “What did you learn?” he turned to me and said “Nothing, what do you mean? I fell, I learned that I fell.”  And the conversation continued:

“Well, why do you think you fell?”  
“Because I tripped”
“Why do you think you tripped?”  

Luckily, I was privy to the photos that his grandfather took of him racing right before this conversation.  What I saw was that he ran this race looking sideways at the boy that he had to beat.  He fell because he was not looking forward.  He fell because he really really wanted to win. He, of course, did not realize (or believe) this until we showed him the photos (and at that point, he found them funny).  Ever since that day this has been a family motto: “What did you learn?” 

Now getting back to my secret. It is this: the secret to success is the ability to embrace failure and overcome setbacks.  It's ok to fail and to fail miserably.  It's just not ok not to learn from failure. 

Michael Jordan was once quoted:

I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

It turns out that successful people have one thing in common and that's that they have this ability to overcome failure, to learn from setbacks. You may think that honors students have nothing to worry about in college but the fact is that over-achieving students are sometimes at most risk.

I believe that intelligence is not something that we are born with.  I believe intelligence is something that comes from hard work. I recognize that some skills are easier to acquire than others and that some subjects in school will be harder than others. But I do not believe that there is any subject matter that cannot be learned.  I do not believe in the statement (or any similar) “I do not do math.” A problem can arise when over achieving students identify with achievement and then take a class in college that kicks their butt.  People with a fixed mindset are those that believe that intelligence is innate; that you're born with it or not.  People with this mindset are more likely to fail in life because they internalize setbacks and failures; these become reflections of who they are. “I failed and therefore I am a failure.”  On the other hand, people with a growth mindset are those that believe that talent, skills, and intelligence can only be acquired through hard work…by persevering through setbacks… and embracing failure. 

My message is therefore this… Expect college to be challenging and if you take a course that is more difficult than you expected, fail an exam, or wish to avoid a topic that is difficult just so that it will not impact your GPA; avoid the temptation to shrug it off, blame the instructors, or excuse away your setbacks.  Instead learn from them. Don’t just try hard, learn from these setbacks – and do something differently if you fail: reach out to faculty when you don't understand, get extra help when you need it and figure out ways to teach yourself how to learn.  And most of all, wish for setbacks. These wakeup calls are what have inspired the most successful people in life since the beginning of time.   

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