Trial and learning - freedom from the fear of failure

I was at Brixton Hub having one of those "Who are you? What do you do? Do we have any overlapping interests?" kind of conversations.

When my new co-working buddy commented "It's refreshing to talk to someone who doesn't mind sharing her failures" I was a bit taken aback. I wasn't aware of sharing any failures, so I wondered exactly what she had in mind. As she quickly reviewed the topics we'd covered I realised what she meant. My stories were about changes of direction and unexpected things I'd learned, bursting with phrases like:

  • It didn't work out how I expected so...
  • I had no idea that...
  • I'd assumed, wrongly...
  • It took me ages to work out why....
  • So instead we had to...
  • I finally realised that...

However I wasn't seeing any "failure" in that. To me those "failure" phrases all related to highly valued, key parts of my narrative. I was telling her about precious learning experiences. After all, one of my main motivations for continuing to do the things I was describing to her is the "interest factor". Why would I want to keep doing it if I wasn't learning something new from the experience? It's not as if someone was paying me. In fact I'm investing my time and resources in what I'm learning, just as any other student would.

We explored the idea of failure a bit more. My co-working buddy pointed out that in many contexts "not going as expected" is the same as "failing to deliver" and, naturally, there aren't many people who feel free to speak openly about "failing to deliver".

In the situations I was describing to her why did I feel free of that kind of fear of failing?

Responsible to myself (and my friends) not to a funding agency

The work I'd been describing to her was where I'm responsible to myself (and my friends) not to a funding agency.

When I'm working in that "culture of friendship" I haven't got tightly pre-defined objectives. Friends collaborate in responsive ways, helping out according to what seems best at the time. I've began doing that (in UK-Africa projects) when I first helped my friend the late Peter Adetunji Oyawale, and then it grew into helping others.

Of course I'll do my best for them, and I'll learn all I can as I go along.

I've been responding to requests for help.The continuation and development of such requests is feedback about their value and required direction. In fact the "demand" now exceeds my ability to supply, which is why I'm looking to the development of Dadamac Foundation (see We got it wrong - now we're getting it right.)

For fourteen years, it's been my privilege to be included in cultures that are dramatically  different to my own. It has been, and continues to be, a wonderful learning experience. My life has been so enriched (in non-financial terms) that I've often happily allowed these projects to displace various paid work opportunities.  That is my context. That's why I'm free of the usual fears of failing.

I'm on a learning journey

As well as helping my friends, I see myself as being on a learning journey. My work history includes being a qualified and experienced teacher, and I'm a self-directed, life-long, free-ranging learner. (I explain more about that idea in a chapter in Teaching and Learning Online: New Models of Learning for a Connected World. Volume 2. Published 2013 )

If I was analysing my progress as a learner then I might say that each time my practical work has resulted in a new insight then I've completed one more successful learning module. This means that, as a learner, I appreciate it when I discover a new mismatch between my assumptions and reality. What would be seen as a failure in some "cultures" I can celebrate as a success. In my situation every unexpected outcome generates a new version of the question "Why ever did that happen?" and a new opportunity to find an answer and deeper understanding of the issues.

Doing as well as learning.

Don't get me wrong about the balance between learning and doing.

If I've said I'll do something then I expect to deliver on my promises. I like practical progress and successful projects. That's what my friends are looking for. Faced with the dramatically unexpected I don't immediately say "Ah, just what I've been hoping for, a new opportunity to learn." I confess I'm more likely to respond with bewilderment and disbelief. I admit to stomping around the room exclaiming "How could that happen?" "I can't believe 'X' would do that!" "What on earth was 'Y' thinking of?" and such like.

However, in the long term I appreciate it as learning-by-doing. It's not "trial and error" but "trial and learning". In the bigger picture, the "unexpected" isn't a failure it's a pointer to a good question, and I know the value of a good question.

Framing the questions

I'm keen to find serious answers to those questions that I first frame in an emotional and personal way. They are normally good questions, because they aren't theoretical ones, but ones keenly felt and embedded in practice and need.

"What did really happen? "How and why could it happen?" "What in fact was Y doing, from his/her perspective?" "What was X probably thinking?"

Remember that most of our UK-Africa work is done at a distance using low bandwidth connections to the Internet. There are valuable insights to be gained from how our confusions have arisen, where my assumptions or expectations were wrong, and why our communications failed. There are also lessons to be drawn from what finally works, and why.

Widely applicable answers

The answers I've found and insights I've gained over the years have shown themselves to be relevant beyond specific unexpected incidents (or "failures").

They're valuable for other UK-Africa collaborations, and in fact are widely applicable in collaborations that are cross cultural. They are also relevant to projects exploring aspects of community building, and the benefits and disadvantages of online collaborations and face-to-face meetings. I've learned about tensions between hierarchical organisations and horizontal ones, and much more besides. I've been deeply immersed in projects that could never have happened without the Internet, so I've gained useful insights into the disruptive nature of digital technology and ways that it makes the 21st century completely different to any century that has gone before.


I'm excited by what I've learned and I'm keen to share what I know. I didn't realise that the language I use to tell my stories is language that others shy away from using because they associate it with failure. I see it as the language of successful explorations and learning, not failure. Success stories aren't something to keep to ourselves. They are to be celebrated and shared.