Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Learning to Fail

I get knocked down
But I get up again
You're never gonna keep me down.
If you are at all interested in how to become an “expert” in your chosen field, whether it is something cerebral like chess, or a more physical activity like climbing, you'll likely have read all about what separates the endless amateur from the expert, and are familiar with deliberate practice (link), and the role of general intelligence and tenacity (link) in becoming an expert. After literally hundreds of failed eskimo rolls, I'm starting to think that being able to fail repeatedly is also a precondition to becoming an expert. 

Yesterday afternoon I was out at the Freshwater swimming hole working on my eskimo roll with Doug and we both noticed that I can roll up super easy if Doug gently guides the paddle, but, when I attempt to roll up on my own, everything from how I set up the paddle, to how I sweep the power blade, and hip-flick the kayak is subtly different; not wildly different, but just divergent enough that I frequently blow the roll. After literally hundreds of failed rolls, I now carry a considerable degree of mental baggage with me so when I tip over and attempt to roll back up, the big heavy mental bags just pull me back down again. I'm like the “Weeble” except, instead of wobbling but not falling down, I fall down and don't get up. 

 Climbing the classic Dark Shadows in Red Rocks, NV
After my nth failure yesterday, I realized that, while I haven't formally articulated it, I nevertheless, expect to fail, which, of course, I do. In an attempt to move past this, Doug and I were brainstorming and among the ideas we tossed around was focusing on the process rather than the outcome. I have to spend some time thinking about what this actually looks like in practice so that when I flip upside down I can reflexively focus on performing not succeeding. Airy-fairy strategies might sound good on sound bites, but really succeeding requires a clear mental picture of the road ahead. Looking at the sports psychology literature (why haven't I read any of this before?), however, it seems as if a performance based focus has long been accepted as more beneficial to both performance and outcome than a results based focus.

I also think it's important to be able to fail repeatedly yet not give up trying. I have lots of practice at this, mostly because, despite enjoying all kinds of sporting activities from climbing to skiing to kayaking, I pretty much suck at all of them, and failing, at least in the short to medium term is pretty common for me. Even the weight training program I do is based on failing. Each time I get 5 sets of 5 repetitions, I raise the weight, and, of course, fail to reach my target sets and repetitions and have to work back up to succeeding again. 

 The spectacular corner on Dark Shadows, Red Rocks, NV

Mindless failure, however, is worse than useless. Which is where deliberate practice comes in. You need to work out why you are failing and tackle whatever weakness you uncover. If you are lucky, this will be some physical block which is relatively easy to fix. More likely, however, as in my case, there is some mental impediment causing you to fail, and, those are much harder to tackle. It could be that, like me, you need to focus on the process not the outcome.

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