How to Fail Smarter: The Goldilocks Rule

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.