Put Your Shoulders Down The Mountain: Why Mastering A Skill Means Falling With Precision

People get better by stretching their skills--that means you need to find out, for you and your team, the right way to take a tumble.

We know a woman who is a breathtaking skier. She tells an interesting story about her breakthrough moment--and it was just that, a moment--when she started down the road of becoming an expert. It happened on the day she decided to fall. She was getting on the lift at the base of a steep, sunlit ski bowl. She had just come down a twisted, mogul-ridden trail in top form, earning the admiration of a teenager who'd been trailing behind her. At the bottom, amidst words like "stoked" and "killer," the teenager asked, "Do you ever fall?"

Getting on the lift, she realized that (1) the answer was no, and that (2) if the teenager had been a nephew or a cousin whom she felt invested in developing as a skier, she wouldn't have wanted to admit that to him. Instead she would have pointed out that if you never fall, you aren't pushing yourself and you aren't improving as fast as you could be. Midway up the mountain she realized that she hardly ever fell, perhaps once every eight or ten days on skis, and even then it was usually at tangled moments when she wasn't actually skiing that hard. She realized that if she wasn't falling she probably wasn't pushing herself to learn as hard as she could be. She had gotten lazy because she was so good.

When she got to the top of the mountain and skied off the chairlift, she knew what she needed to do. She set out to ski hard enough to fall, but she was intentional about how. She knew that there was one thing that she had been working on: pointing her shoulders face down the mountain, no matter how steep. She then set out to execute this skill even if that meant falling. She fell three times that first day. "I could feel myself trying to do exactly the things I was afraid of. I knew if I stuck with it I would conquer my fears." She began skiing without fearing falling. Within a few weeks she was a different skier entirely.

In that single moment, she was able to embrace two important truths: first, failure is normal and not the indicator of a lack of skill; second, skiing right at the edge of mastery would make her better. She had to trust that exposing her weaknesses--risking ridicule and embarrassment--rather than trying to cover them up would be the driver of excellence. Compare our friend to a skier who just tries to ski the hardest runs as fast as he can. If he pushes himself to fall without encoding success, then he will fail miserably, likely leaning back too much on his skis and risking injury.

How do you build an organizational culture of fearless skiers willing to take thoughtful risks in order to improve--especially when the goal is to encode success? An organization has to help its people realize that failure rate and level of skill are independent variables; it has to help them feel comfortable exposing their weaknesses to their peers so they can help them improve; it has to make them feel trust and faith and even joy, not only to practice but to do so with others. The first step on that journey is to normalize error.

Applying this lesson to organizations is often easier said than done. Most organizations have a difficult relationship with error, and with good reason. Sometimes the results of error can be devastating, causing everything from a lost client, to debilitating press coverage, to massive product recalls. Even when the results would be minimal, it is common for many people in the workplace to be scared of making mistakes and even more terrified of anyone finding out. The challenge for organizations is to find appropriate ways to normalize error in the context of learning and practicing.

Here is what normalizing error looks like: first, challenge people and allow them to make mistakes, as we saw with the skier and the typist; second, respond to errors in a way that supports growth and improvement. You do this not by minimizing or ignoring mistakes, but by supporting people in fixing errors before they become too ingrained. This is a delicate balance, and for each organization and learning challenge it will look a bit different.

To see how this balance can be achieved, let's consider the classroom, a place where learning is front and center.

Something we have learned from watching great teachers is that they are very good at creating a classroom culture where error is accepted as a normal part of learning; but these teachers don't allow errors to go uncorrected. Great teachers do not downplay the importance of an error, as in "That's OK, sweetheart, that was a hard problem. It's OK you got it wrong," and do not allow mistakes to go unaddressed. When a third-grader reads a passage aloud with a few errors, her teacher will ask her to reread the sentence or phrase that was troubling: "Try reading that sentence again." If the mistake persists, the teacher may prompt her with a decoding rule like "That sound is a short i." Champion teachers will be relentless in ensuring that errors don't go unaddressed and become more inscribed. They correct warmly and firmly. They prefer the rigor that self-corrections provide (as by having a student reread a challenging passage and fix her own mistake) but are direct when necessary ("That word is pronounced ‘diagram'").

As in any culture, workplace, classroom, or other group, it is the accumulation of exchanges about mistakes that will determine how everyone approaches error. When a student is encouraged both to fail and to try again, it has a profound effect on all students--how they view their work individually and how they support each other in their learning efforts. The classroom becomes a safe place to fail and a place where error is always corrected but not condemned; a place where success matters.

In this effort, it's important that teachers and managers "get past nice." Often our initial impulse when addressing error is to come at it apologetically: "That's OK, Sarah. That was a really hard one; you did your best." Or, "I'm sorry to call you out on this." This approach has a number of negative effects. It communicates lower expectations, that errors (and feedback!) are something you should apologize for, and finally that error is something to be avoided. When you do too much tap dancing around something that needs to be improved, people will think that it is a bigger deal than it really is. Be warm, be direct, get past nice, and make errors a normal part of practice.

Four Steps For Normalizing Error (And Making A Team Of Courageous Skiers)

  • Encourage people to challenge themselves and push beyond their performance plateaus by taking calculated risks in practice.
  • Don't minimize or ignore errors, or they will become too ingrained and people won't learn from them.
  • Help performers identify their own errors so that they can improve them independently.
  • Practice responding to errors in an effort to prepare for and normalize mistakes.

Doug Lemov is the author of the bestselling book, Teach Like a Champion. He was a managing director at Uncommon Schools and now directs their project on effective teaching practices. Erica Woolway is the chief academic officer for the Taxonomy of Effective Teaching Practices at Uncommon Schools. Katie Yezzi is the founding principal of Troy Prep Elementary School in New York.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. Practice Perfect, by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, Katie Yezzi. Copyright 2012 by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi.

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Kirkevåg]

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