How to Fail Smarter: The Goldilocks Rule

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I’ve been traveling lately in the business world and in the sports/music worlds. No matter where I go, I’m hearing conversations about the importance of failure. About how struggle makes you smarter, how mistakes are useful. Failure, it seems, is sexy.

Take Silicon Valley, for instance, where working on a failed startup is often regarded as a badge of honor superior to a Ph.D. Or education reformers talking about creating spaces for “productive struggle.” Or coaches extolling the importance of 10,000 hours of intensive practice, where you try, fail, and try again.

All in all, I think this is a really good thing.  But here’s the catch: all failure is not created equal. In other words, some types of failure are smarter than others because they create learning. Other failures are worse, because they create more failures. The question is, how do we tell smart failure from dumb failure?

One way to approach this question is to use the Goldilocks model, inspired by the work of Dr. Robert Bjork and Lev Vygotsky. As in the story, there are three zones of failure: too soft, too hard, and just right.

  • Zone 1: The Comfort Zone: Here, you’re able to hit your target more than 90 percent of the time. You’re in control; relaxed, confident. You’re not reaching past your current abilities, but operating firmly within them. You’re like an advanced skier on a beginner run, carving turns with ease and grace.
  • Zone 2: The Thrash Zone: Here, you’re failing more than half the time. When you succeed, it’s mostly because you’re getting lucky. You’re behaving like a beginning skier fighting his way down a steep expert run: occasionally you might make a good turn, but more often you’re just trying to get to the bottom in one piece.
  • Zone 3: The Sweet Spot: Here, you’re in between Comfort and Thrashing. You’re putting forth maximal effort and you’re succeeding between 60 percent and 80 percent of the time. You’re failing — sometimes spectacularly — and you’re paying attention, and learning from each screwup.

As with Goldilocks, this goal of this rule is to help us make the right choice between different options. To put this idea to work, here’s a quiz:

  • Should a student cram for a history test by (A) reading a chapter over and over five times, or (B) by reading the chapter once and then constructing an outline of the key points?
  • Should a business train its new sales force by (A) sending them into the field to see how they do or (B) by constructing a series of role-playing exercises led by a master coach?
  • Should a pianist spend her practice hour  (A) playing a song perfectly, over and over, or (B) isolating the weak spots in a new song, repeating them until they’re improved?

The basic rule in all cases is to choose (B), and aim for the sweet spot. Steer clear of comfort and thrashing, especially when you’re starting something new.  The second rule is that when in doubt, keep things small and simple. The smaller and simpler the task, the easier it is to locate your sweet spot.


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9 Responses to “How to Fail Smarter: The Goldilocks Rule”

  1. gosobooks says:

    Another short and excellent post by Dan. I will suggest you check this book: The Path of Least Resistancce, if you had not in the past.
    For every individual has his or her area of strength.

  2. Andrew says:

    great post.

    i’ll be using your 3 zones.

    when i teach i use a paradigm i call the “risk spectrum” which is a similar idea, though I tend to encourage at least at first spending more time in the thrashing zone, as you call it.
    mainly because i see students trying to move perfectly BEFORE putting in the hours to master it

    i wrote a blog post about it, if you’re interested,

    http://digdeepbjj.blogspot.com/2011/10/commitment-risk-spectrum-and-looking.html

    thanks again for another great post!

  3. liz garnett says:

    This resonates with the idea of comfort-learning-panic zones that I learned from Chris Davidson (and blogged about here: http://www.helpingyouharmonise.com/zones), and also with Czikszentmihalyi’s idea of a flow state lying in the sweet spot between too much and too little challenge. What’s interestingly different, though, is the way it articulates the zones in terms of behavioural outcomes rather than psychological state. This clearly takes some of the guesswork out of the coach’s role. (Though you do get pretty good at observing other behavioural cues as to how challenging different people are finding a task.)

    I was also thinking I’d read a post in the last couple of months on a similar theme, but using a scale to quantify level of risk – then realised it was the post that Andrew has given a link to!

  4. Andreas says:

    Hello, just wanted to share this with you Daniel(and others:)), so i hope you see this.

    I think it will be an interesting read if you have time!

    wiki:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Unfettered_Mind

    Ebook:
    http://www.an-fear-breac.org/files/The_Unfettered_Mind.pdf

    I appreciate your work!

  5. Robert says:

    The reason the Eastwood looks happens and deep practice works is due to combine the comparison mode cognitive/somatic where the context is the same within the skill set practiced.
    if you ask me :)

  6. djcoyle says:

    Nice! I like thinking of it that way.

  7. Terry says:

    I’m wondering if it might be profitable sometimes to venture into both Zones 1 and 2. For example, in selecting repertoire for a school band, kids might vary widely in skill levels. It might not be such a bad thing for the advanced ones to occasionally play some easy things — listening even more deeply and performing more precisely than they would have at a prior skill level. But on the occasional advanced pieces, the lesser skilled kids get a taste of what’s before them and a chance to observe and feel how the advanced kids handle it.

  8. Garnet says:

    Great post Dan, clearly addresses something I’ve been thinking about in my own practice. It’s easy to want to over-train, with our more-is-better attitude, this gives an easy to grasp model for pushing just the right amount.

    I also agree with Terry, that some time spent in the Papa and Baby Bear zone is helpful.

  9. Janis says:

    Late to the post, sorry. :-) But this jumped out at me:

    Zone 1: The Comfort Zone: Here, you’re able to hit your target more than 90 percent of the time. You’re in control; relaxed, confident … bored out of your mind.

    Zone 2: The Thrash Zone: Here, you’re failing more than half the time. When you succeed, it’s mostly because you’re getting lucky. You’re … bored.

    In both of these cases, I at least tend to get bored because I don’t feel in control and I know the outcome in advance be it success or failure so why bother? It’s like that old joke about the gambler who died and woke up in a casino where every game he played, he hit. He thought he was in heaven before he realized that he had ended up in the warm place. :-)

    Zone 3: The Sweet Spot: Here, you’re in between Comfort and Thrashing. You’re putting forth maximal effort and you’re succeeding between 60 percent and 80 percent of the time. You’re not bored at all — you’re engaged and awake because you can influence the outcome and see the results of your effort.

    I always remember how boring practicing music was as a kid; it was told to me that one “practiced” by mindlessly doing something over and over, and just trusting that it would somehow get better. As an adult, I’ve started to engage in more deliberate practice, and contrary to the common opinion that it’s so hard, I’ve found it to be a lot more fun. There’s nothing harder to me than sitting someplace for an hour and mindlessly doing something unengaging while my mind wanders.

    Deliberate practice is the ONLY kind of fun and enjoyable practice, and by definition it occurs in the sweet spot. What would you rather do — sit down and be bored stiff for an hour, or engage in puzzle and problem solving for three?

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