Sunday, 8 January 2017

Farting around in the dark: failure, learning and critical thinking

“…we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”
- John F. Kennedy
I want to write about the Cambridge Libraries Conference 2017 and all the great ideas smashing about in my head delivered by brilliant colleagues. But somehow - perhaps because it encapsulated so many of the themes from the day - I can't unstick myself from one talk in particular. If you were there, you know which one I mean because, like me, you sat on the hard wooden benches of a lecture theatre, breathless and confronted by the fallacy of your self-beliefs. I know I'm not alone in feeling that it was one of the most important talks I'll attend, maybe in my life. I won't be able to capture the eloquence and grace of the speaker but I need to write about Emma Coonan's keynote before the impressions evaporate and all I'm left with is a stack of 140 character abstractions.

It seems strange to report that a keynote speech on failure was one of the most affirming things I've ever heard but if there has ever been a more necessary time to take an honest look at our failings, I think stepping out of the rubble of 2016 is it. "2016 was not a good year for criticality," Emma began. Facts, expertise and nuance took a beating. Sometimes we feel failure on a national or global scale, as happened to many of us when we woke up feeling like strangers in our own communities, aghast at a political disaster we felt we ought to have prevented. Sometimes we feel failure on the painfully, awfully local scale in our personal or professional lives. Sometimes we're backed into it by being on the wrong side of the political pendulum swing, finding ourselves having to work to the pressures of "just get it done", in opposition with our values of pedagogical and service excellence. Sometimes we simply feel we did the wrong thing, or not enough of the right thing, or did the right thing too late.

Many of us seem primed to perceive our own failure, however. Ange Fitzpatrick discussed the phenomenon of Impostor Syndrome, which seems alarmingly common among librarians, in her lightning talk. Along similar lines, Emma talked about growing up with the ingrained idea that people were either innately talented at something or not. If you tried to do something and failed, you were just no good at it. Similarly, she thought, if you weren't good enough to make a career out of something it simply wasn't worth doing. 'Why would I bother learning ballet,' she might have asked herself, 'since I'll clearly never be part of a ballet company?' She asked if anyone else had grown up with the same ingrained idea. After I thrust my own hand into the air I didn't look around at how many others went up around the room, but Emma's proclamation that she was in a room full of perfectionists drew a sheepish laugh from the audience. The perfectionist ideology of all-or-nothing in learning is one I've been challenging in myself for a couple of years now. While it has deep, culturally embedded roots, recently I traced it back to being expected to climb a rope in Physical Education at school as almost the quintessential example:
The thing about PE was that they would give you one shot to try something (in front of the entire class) and you could either do it or you couldn't. You didn't get to practice. They didn't help you with your technique if you were having trouble. They didn't give you easier regressions you could work on to build up to it. Nope. You either scooted up the rope or you dangled for a few humiliating seconds before giving up.
Based on experiences like that I had it in my head for decades that I was absolutely and permanently unathletic, that I would never be able to do a pull up or climb a rope. But just as Emma found the freedom and joy of learning something because you love it upon taking up ballet in her 30s, I've learned to delight in simply finding out how much I am capable of if I practice at it. (I even successfully did a rope climb for the first time last summer at age 33.)

Part of the reason this mindset is so ingrained is that as a culture we seldom pay attention to the process of learning and focus instead on bold, brilliant achievements that come every once in a while. Social media especially subjects us to the carefully edited highlight reels people choose to share. But underlying every achievement is a mountain of grunt work. Poets and artists know the labour that goes into work that looks, if done well, completely effortless to the observer. W.B. Yeats wrote:
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
As a rule we don't look at the back of the stitches - the 'underside of the carpet', as Emma put it - the mess that makes the design. Nor do we see how many times the creator had to rip all the stitches back and start over again.

The reverse side of hand embroidery looks a mess but it creates a beautiful pattern. The blogger who posted this photo wisely wrote, 'If the back of your embroidery looks as good as the front of your embroidery, it probably took you ten times longer to do it, and gave you about half the pleasure.' (Source:

This underlying pattern is made up of all of the hard work, the repetition, the mistakes, the failures that went in to making the final product, the bit that's celebrated. We don't tend to focus on them, but they're there if you look past the surface. Perhaps we should pay more attention and give more credit for that background work.

There is power here in the form of the oft-overlooked word 'yet'. It acknowledges potential, and that the gap between our present state and desired accomplishments can be bridged by hard work and learning. 'Yet' stands at the heart of the so-called Growth Mindset, discussed by researcher Carol Dweck in the brilliant and important video below:

Its antithesis, the Fixed Mindset, holds that 'If you have ability, you shouldn't need effort and that if you need a lot of effort, it's a sign that you don't have ability'. The fear of failure, of looking dumb, of not being able to perform leads to learners gaming the system to appear successful at any cost, or giving up with a discouraged cry of, 'I'm just not good at this.' Meanwhile, learners with the Growth Mindset face setbacks ready to learn from them, saying, 'I'm not good at this... yet.'

Recovering from supposed failure and using it to learn takes resilience, a mental and emotional skill that many students (not to mention adults) seem to lack. Student participants of Futurelib's Tracker Project, for example, tended to express the idea that they were 'not good at libraries' when they had difficulty finding a particular book. They tended to stay in their comfort zones and rely on their memory of where their most used resources were, rather than learning how to use the library. Several of these students admitted that if they weren't being observed in their task they would have given up long ago. Although resilience involves the ability to keep going in the face of difficulty, it has to come from knowing that it is safe and acceptable to fail, and knowing that there are resources to help you if you do.

Even when we've reached the stage that previously looked unattainable to us, there is still work to be done. Learning is never finished. Emma compared this to watching a prima ballerina balancing en pointe: while from a distance all you see is elegance and perfection, if you look closely you can see the dancer's ankles wobbling, making tiny adjustments all the time to rebalance. These micro adjustments are like the little course corrections we make all the time as we refine our knowledge or skills. I talked about this in a post about finding a work/life balance:
The revelation for me has been accepting that balance is not a fixed ratio but a point that is constantly shifting beneath me in response to external circumstances and where my own energy and passion is guiding me. 
It never becomes effortless. You will never be perfect. You will always be balancing to a moving point of equilibrium.

I have another frame of reference for this in my life at the moment. Weightlifting, it may surprise you, takes as much repetition to master as any move in ballet. It's a highly technical sport with very little margin for error when the weights become heavier and heavier. In the video below you can see a side-by-side comparison of two lifts from the same training session - one from early and one from late in the session - in which I performed the same movement dozens of times. Olympic weightlifters will have executed thousands of lifts in preparation for a competition. With tiny corrections and learning from mistakes each time, you can see the progression in technique in a single session (if you know what you're looking for). But there is no such thing as a 'perfect lift'. Even the professionals miss lifts, and there are always little adjustments to make.

The aspect of Dweck's Growth vs. Fixed Mindset study I find particularly fascinating was when participants in her research who had been primed for a particular mindset were given a choice between a task that would pose a challenge to them and stretch them versus one with which they were already comfortable. You can probably guess who went for which task. Dweck says that those with a fixed mindset, 'rejected the opportunity to learn in favour of something they were sure to do well on', while those who valued process over results, 'overwhelmingly wanted the hard task they could learn from'. It seems odd that in the same culture that celebrates innovators such as Elon Musk, Florence Nightingale and Thomas Edison (who famously said, 'I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.') there is a reluctance to take risks for fear of making mistakes. But, as discussed at the conference's panel on failure (which I didn't attend but sounded brilliant from the tweets), innovation requires willingness to fall on your ass. If you're not failing, you're probably not growing or learning either.

One: Number 31 by Jackson Pollock

Process is more important to learning than the end product because deep knowledge is actively constructed through a combination of failures, blind alleys, and 'farting around in the dark'. The Process Art movement encapsulates this idea perfectly by de-emphasising the final objet d'art around which most of art criticism up to that point had centred. Pollock's One: Number 31 even resembles the underside of hand embroidery pictured earlier and, as all Process Art does, functions in much the same way compared to the representative art movements against which Pollock and his contemporaries were rebelling. By removing a recognisable subject, Pollock's art makes you forcibly aware of the process, of the artist dribbling, dripping, flinging paint against the canvas. It evokes the physicality of the artist at work through the layers built up over time that converge into something unmistakably whole and complete. Like the Zen Buddhist practice of Enso, the painting of a circle, the artist's embodied experience is more important in Process Art than the end artefact. The artefact exists as a testament to the completeness of the moment of production; the expression of a mind and body that has learned, through repetition and failure, to execute a perfectly imperfect performance.

By taking exposures of his own camera in a mirror at different apertures and shutter speeds, John Hilliard in Camera Recording Its Own Condition reveals both the mechanism (the camera) and the medium (light) of the photographic process to the viewer. The repetition of the same act with slight variations makes this work performative in a similar way to the practice of Enso.
This process is simultaneously engaged and unconscious. Walt Whitman beautifully describes the balance between the two in Leaves of Grass:
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems? 
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
To my mind he is describing here the knowledge that comes from direct experience and engagement. Art and poetry perhaps describe learning better than anything else because they bypass paths to deliberate knowing and point at direct experience. Critical thinking is not simply finding the most logical resource and agreeing with it. It comes from being awake to possibility, looking beneath and risking the horrible fate of finding out you were wrong. The sculptor Barbara Hepworth discusses how she traverses unknowning:
Before I start carving the idea must be almost complete. I say 'almost' because the really important thing seems to be the sculptor's ability to let his intuition guide him over the gap between conception and realization without compromising the integrity of the original idea; the point being that the material has vitality - it resists and makes demands...
You could point to this as a failure on Hepworth's part to produce exactly the sculpture she intended to. But I prefer to see it as a metaphor for critical engagement. How many times in your learning have you found that the material 'resists and makes demands' on you, defying your efforts to beat it into the shape you want? That 'gap between conception and realization' is wide and ambiguous and frightening. Most of the time we can't even see the other side. Its the dark in which we 'fart around' when we do research, or innovate solutions that no one has come up with before, or create a piece of artwork. Critical engagement makes this darkness even broader and more vague because we begin to question the safe moorings to which we used to cling. It demands that we let go of comfortable categories, binaries and absolutist thinking, even our perception of ourselves as someone who can or can't do something. Critical thinking is essential to gaining deeper knowledge. It keeps us balancing amid uncertainties.

Mentors have the power to help navigate this ambiguity, not from atop a pedestal but by showing that not knowing, that 'beginner's mind' is an asset. Concealed by the darkness of unknowing is the opportunity to learn rather the risk of failure. The only failure in this context is the failure to act, to take a step in any direction. Therefore, we need to cultivate a working and learning environment that enables others to feel safe and rewards setbacks that lead to better understanding. People in mentorship roles in particular need to be upfront about their own failures, and applaud innovative efforts, whether or not they result in success. But all of us need to raise our hands and admit when we've made mistakes or gotten things wrong, that we've struggled with Impostor Syndrome or doubted ourselves from time to time. And most importantly we each have the responsibility to critically engage with the world, because failure to do so leads to the kind of empty, divisive, hate-filled mentalities that made 2016 a year to regret.

This has been my lengthy but feeble attempt to capture some of Emma's brilliance by reflecting on and reacting to what she said. I believe the slides and audio will be available at some point and I'll add the links here if/when they are because she said it all better than I could.

** Acknowledgement: This post was brought to you by "The Race for Space" by Public Service Broadcasting, the album I listened to about six times through while writing it. It's a brilliant concept album about the early Russian and American space programmes using original audio and you should definitely listen to it.

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