A ride on the magic school bus

My daughter has recently gotten into watching The Magic School Bus TV show on Netflix.
Aside from all the other educational content and wacky antics that happens, the underlying theme of show really speaks to me (and my daughter I hope), and is summarized in a line the characters repeat frequently:

Take chances, make mistakes!

As a leader (and a father) this is an attitude and environment I hope to allow, nurture, and whole heartedly encourage. No one ever gets it right the first time, and if your people are afraid to try new and risky things for fear of being chastised or shot down, they will default into only doing what you tell them; only doing what they are allowed. In other words, stagnation.

While success is always the goal, and you should always do your best to control known risks and contingencies, many important lessons and breakthroughs are made by trial and error.

This idea is not new, and sounds simple on the surface. If you read the HR policies and mission statements of many companies, they all claim to offer an environment of embracing failure… but when it actually comes down to it, the failing, managers and employees are incented not to do it, and the buck of blame often gets passed down the chain of command.

I am reminded of an algebra test I had in high school. Before the test began, the teacher plunked a giant jar full of jujubes down on his desk with a thud. The test would have a special bonus question at the end, he proceeded to explain, and whomever got it right would not only get 10 bonus marks, but would split the jar between them.

Now to this high school kid, who wasn’t necessarily bad at math, just unmotivated, a jar of jujubes was as a far more tangible incentive than some abstract grade that he knew no one would care about as soon as the year was done. So, with time running out, and what I hoped was enough correct answers to score a passing grade, all attention was given to the bonus question. The question was long and hard, It required your to solve for 3 variables, required a bit of abstract thinking and even tied in some knowledge of chemistry (another subject I found myself interested in, but unmotivated to do well in). Even if you knew exactly what to do (which I didn’t) it would have taken a good chunk of time to solve (all long form, by hand of course – our teacher was old school). I can vividly remember making the decision to commit to trying. I was even willing to fail, just to get that question finished.

As it turned out, the teacher reported when handing back our tests, only 3 people even attempted the bonus question, and only 1 got it right. Me.

I don’t tell this story to gloat about my amazing bonus question skills, but rather to question why out of a class of 30+ students did only 3 even attempt the bonus questions? There were plenty of smart people in the class (a few kids got 100% on the test). My guess is that they were afraid to fail, and rather than try, but risk failure, they decided just to not try at all.

Kudos to my boring old math teacher for the life lesson, though I wouldn’t come to appreciate it later in life.

Allowing for provisioned risk taking, even in the face of failure can lead to a metaphorical giant jar of jujubes.

Also published on Medium.

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