The Right Way to Fail (at writing or anything else)

cupcake fail

Failure is the new success. It's finally being recognized for the powerful learning tool that it is. It’s the best thing since sliced bread. So let's talk about bread. And cakes, and pastries, and pies. 

I want to take you on a tour of what successful failure looks like via The Great British Bake Off.

What does baking have to do with writing? Besides being two of my favorite activities, both have what I call failure thresholds. These are points beyond which failure stops being our teacher and starts being our nemesis. 

The Wrong Way to Fail

Even though the space to fail is what makes us fantastic, the wrong kind of failure is debilitating. 

In one scenario, we don't get something right the first time, and we're not satisfied. We keep trying it, again and again, understanding it better with each attempt and becoming more determined to master it.

In the other scenario, each time we mess up, we get smaller. Our brains start shutting down. We become slow, clumsy, and overwhelmed. Eventually we are so overwrought that we can't try anymore. If you've ever seen an athlete choke (or been that athlete!), you've witnessed the effects of too much failure.

Both types of failure are easy to spot in The Great British Bake Off. (Isn't it neat how we can see truths so clearly in one realm of our lives and then apply them to other areas? I learn a ton about writing from cooking and gardening!)

Here's the background you need about TGBBO: contestants compete in three baking challenges each show, which is filmed in a weekend. At the end of the show, one baker is eliminated and sent home. Fairly straightforward.

Consistently, it’s not the people who performed worst in the first two challenges who go home; it’s the people who didn’t know how to cope with their performances in those first two rounds who go home.

Some contestants bounce back after hearing their offerings were absolute rubbish, while others fall apart when told their seasonings could have been a bit more inventive. What causes some people to give up and others to dig deeper and redouble their efforts?   

The Conditions of Good Failure

Positive Setting

What's delightful about TGBBO, aside from all the delectable goodies coming out of the oven, is how nice everyone is! The judges and hosts encourage the contestants, and at the end of each episode everyone hugs. They sip tea while their goodies are in the oven, and when one contestant runs out of time or has a disaster, others come running to help. 

In other words, the setting is positive. That's the first necessary element. Everyone is invested in success.

In your child's writing environment... 

  • Do instructors show their belief in students?
  • Are students encouraged to help one another?
  • Do they understand that one person's success does not diminish anyone else's?

High-Interest Activities

While the middle challenge is the same for all contestants, the first and last rounds allow bakers to choose their own recipes and designs. They pull ideas from their personal recipe boxes and show their creativity.

Contestants are encouraged to put their passions on the plate, designing impressive, edible art. They show off their unique skill sets, from gingerbread geometry to fondant flowers.

Bakers and writers who have the opportunity to design and execute projects of their choosing are much more invested in making those projects succeed. When they encounter failure, they have intrinsic motivation to persevere.     

In your child's writing environment... 

  • Do students get to choose at least some of their writing topics?
  • Are students allowed to change their minds if a writing topic isn't working?
  • Are students encouraged to write about passions or talents they've demonstrated?
  • Do students or instructors keep track of mastered skills to build an individualized Writing Toolbox?

Graduated Challenges

Before they make it on TV, the bakers are whittled down to a group of only 12 from hundreds or perhaps even thousands. The lesson is not that we must make learning more exclusive, but that we must match the tasks to the students we actually have! The tasks on this show would be a poor match for a beginner baker.  

Once they make it to the show, bakers know that the challenges will increase in difficulty each week. They practice in their off-time and they look forward to making it to the next round, and ultimately the finals, so that they can continually push themselves with bigger, bolder bakes.  

In your child's writing environment... 

  • Are the challenges appropriate to student skill level?
  • Do expectations gradually increase?
  • Do students continue to practice and sharpen skills?
  • Are there advanced challenges for students to look forward to? 

Always Something (Instead of All or Nothing)

One of the most obvious lessons to be learned from a TV competition is that a single weekend of demonstrating your skills is completely silly! The all-or-nothing, one-winner structure is great for entertainment, but bad for education.

We all have good days and bad days. Sometimes we take off running with new concepts. Other days, the material we've used before without issue just trips us up.

In your child's writing environment... 

  • Are the expectations realistic?
  • Do rubrics focus on high-quality results without the expectation of perfection?
  • Are there plenty of opportunities to show mastery from day to day?
  • Are the tasks modular? Can they be made more manageable on "off days" or more challenging on days when students are on fire?

Realistic Deadlines

Despite all the helpful and positive energy flitting around the baking tent, TGBBO is a competition. When time is up, it's up. And if a contestant's cake is collapsing, there is no opportunity to fix it. Melted baked Alaska, burned bread, or under-frosted cake still have to be brought up to the judges. This timed competition is great for creating drama and viewership, but not so much for learning.

Writing does need deadlines, but they shouldn't be arbitrary. Realistic deadlines help us set goals and continue moving forward with projects so we can finish them. While we're working toward those goals, we need check-ins and the chance to ask questions and receive guidance before we get in over our heads.

In your child's writing environment... 

  • Are writing projects broken up into smaller tasks with realistic checkpoints or due dates?
  • Do students learn to schedule their own projects and learn how much time they realistically need? 
  • Are due dates flexible to accommodate disaster, getting lost, or expanding a project to include more depth or breadth?
  • Is there feedback and support at every stage of the writing process? 
  • Are students encouraged to take responsibility for their work and find ways to fix what they know isn't working?

Structured & Modeled Assessment

Like perfectly baked bread being poked by the finger of a scrutinizing judge, many contestants bounce back after hearing negative feedback about their baked goods. The two judges are honest and fair, holding contestants to the standards that have been clearly stated ahead of time, from flavor, to texture, to decoration.

They do not falsely praise, nor do they demean. They are consistent and professional, never conflating a baker's results with his worth as a person or even his effort. But of course, when they have watched a baker struggle immensely with a challenge, they acknowledge a good effort.

In your child's writing environment... 

  • Do students know the expectations ahead of time?
  • Is feedback focused on the work, rather than the worth of the student?
  • Is effort acknowledged?
  • Do students receive or create checklists for self-assessment?
  • Do students practice peer editing and learn how to offer constructive criticism?

Respecting the Failure Threshold

TGBBO is very much a mindset show. After the first challenge, bakers know how well they did. When they return later that same day for the second baking challenge—always a difficult technical challenge where they must strive for a perfect recreation of a classic baked delight—their mindset is written all over their faces and bodies. Some of them stand tall, others slump back on their stools as they wait for items in the oven.

The next day, for the final challenge—a creative “show-stopper”—this difference is heightened even more. You can usually tell who will go home at the beginning of the final challenge: The person who goes home is nearly always someone who has given up after being pushed beyond his or her failure threshold. 

Why would we continue to try when we no longer believe we have any hope of mastering a task, or when we are so fatigued from failing that we can't even think straight?

Recognize Low Failure Thresholds

Some of us have greater resiliency than others. Some of us take disaster in stride and bounce from one failure to the next without losing enthusiasm for the task (to paraphrase Winston Churchill).

Others of us have low failure thresholds. Messing up or missing the mark gets us down. Really down. And the more we mess up, the worse it gets.

And of course, each of us has a different failure threshold depending on the day, the task, and small factors from who's watching to how much sleep we've gotten the night before. 

Respecting (our own and other people's) failure thresholds is key to creating successful failure. When we recognize a low threshold, it's time for a break or an opportunity for guaranteed success. We must be particularly aware of low thresholds for those facing additional challenges, such as...

  • Obsessive tendencies 
  • Perfectionism
  • High-attunement to social cues
  • Intense desire to please others
  • Fragile sense of competence
  • Volatile temper
  • Intensity 

Offer Empathy Instead of Sympathy

There are two charming hosts on TGBBO, but I know that were I ever on this show, I would punch one of them right in the face. Mel is funny, clever, and delightful. But when bakers fail, she suffocates them with saccharine sympathy. It was actually watching these Mel moments that sparked the idea of writing about this show and failure.

Although she means well, Mel has sent many contestants over the cliff of failure to the place from which they don’t bounce back. When disaster strikes for a baker, she sidles up to the baking bench and begins speaking in soft, coddling tones. She says, “Aw” and “Ooooh, that’s not good!” She takes on an attitude of pity.

The contestants with low failure thresholds choose precisely this moment to give up. Their movements and words become brusque. They become self-deprecating and often passive aggressive. They stop trying to succeed. They are aware only of their failure, convinced that there is no way back out of it.

When we are right at the edge of our failure threshold, someone trying to tell us that it's OK to fail is precisely what we don't want! The pity highlights our frailty and makes us very uncomfortable.

This is the moment when sympathy will crush us, but empathy or honest encouragement may work. Whether to intervene at all when someone is at a failure threshold depends on many factors, including how much trust has been established in the relationship.

When I used to row in college, the exhortations of my roommate, whom I respected and admired, would propel me through the toughest parts of our training. Yet had any of my other teammates encouraged me, I would have shut down, unwilling to show my vulnerability to them by trying my utmost. 

Transcending Our Failure Thresholds

Whether it’s in writing or any other area, the best way we can help build the resiliency to fail and bounce back is to allow space for feelings and reactions, but to focus on taking action.  

In writing, this looks like honestly assessing the whole piece of writing, including the bad parts. Putting the bad parts in context will show the improvement and what should be celebrated, but without coddling.

We talk through the best and the worst—what worked as well as what didn’t. You can fail at one part and do well somewhere else. Learning to critique writing makes the process of self-assessment more objective and productive.

The best way we can help build resiliency is by skipping the sympathy! We can talk about what went wrong with empathy. But since empathy means “feeling with” someone else, the first thing we have to do is know what someone else is feeling! The problem with sympathy is that by feeling for others, it "outs" feelings that we aren't necessarily comfortable sharing with others. 

The right amount of failure allows us to believe that further effort is worthwhile. [Tweet this!]

Working on skills a few at a time through targeted activities goes a long way toward building confidence, and therefore resiliency. From fun freewrites and writing games to short, focused paragraphs, there are plenty of ways to invite your creative juices to flow.

When you experience or witness too much failure, take a step back. Pushing harder generally creates more resistance. 

How do you work through your own failure threshold? How have you helped students work through theirs? Join the conversation by writing about it in the comments below.