Make room for failure, then make progress
If failure were a person, how would you greet them? Would you avoid them, would you ask them to go bother someone else, or would you treat them like a friend?
I would go up to them and give them a big hug of thanks.
Why? I recently found myself knee-deep in uncharted territory, facing the possibility of failure. More specifically, I faced the possibility of letting people down and damaging my relatively new reputation as a language coach.
I returned last week from Budapest, where my colleague Krisztina Fekete and I ran workshops that helped participants become better language learners. Sessions included an introduction to how the brain learns, learning style diagnostics, a motivation and planning workshop, and a discussion around what prevents language learners from making real progress.
To Krisztina and me, these workshops were an experiment, our shared brain child, and a Big Deal. The same idea had come to us both separately earlier this year, and when through serendipity we met in Bratislava in May, our shared enthusiasm was undeniable: We both wanted to create opportunities for people to explore non-traditional ways of learning languages.
In the face of uncertainty
Of course, there were a lot of unknowns. Krisztina and I had just met, and naturally had never worked together. I heard from people who had taken her Hungarian crash course that she was an engaging teacher with an unconventional style, and we shared the same ambition, so this was our starting point. My impression of her was someone professional, curious, knowledgeable and driven. But was I up to the challenge? Who was I, a relative novice in the language learning industry, to put together a “Language Bath”?
In design and innovation projects, uncertainty is the norm, and failures are a part of success. I’m usually comfortable with this approach from my past in marketing, design and the startup-founded vyn. But for the first time in my life, this potential failure felt deeply personal, because it had been my idea from the beginning. I’d never wanted something to go well this badly.
Fast forward to two weeks ago, everything is planned and ready, yet my nerves are building. I worry about all the things that could go wrong. I think about any sceptical questions and comments from family and friends - what if they're right? I don't sleep well and I keep waking up to write down little ideas or tweaks. I worry about worrying: What if my nervousness just keeps increasing until I'm just a mumbling mess by the time the workshops come around?
I realise I need to shift my focus onto the bigger picture. Friday 4th October, I write about this nervousness in my diary. I try to imagine the long-term effects of this workshop if it goes terribly. Chances are, even if it’s a fiasco, if participants get bored or confused, or if no one shows up, even if we get terrible feedback, chances are nothing will happen. In 5 years, at worst, the failure will be a boring blip in a series of much more meaningful events. At best, it will be a learning experience.
I believe it was this writing process that helped me find a sense of serenity in the final days before the first workshop. The morning of the first session, as I was waiting for the Hev train on our way into Budapest, I realised that even if we fail, I'll be happy. We'll be fine. And that's when my nerves disappeared.
Accepting failure in language learning
A wonderful side-effect of learning a foreign language is that mistakes are an integral part of making progress. If you're not making mistakes, you're not using the language creatively. You're not testing the boundaries of the language. If you find the peace of mind to welcome mistakes, you're also lowering your stress levels (likely reducing both cortisol levels and amygdala activity), which helps you think more clearly. In other words, by accepting mistakes you are probably less likely to make them.
I believe this held true during the Language Bath workshops, too. When the time came, I didn't feel nervous at all, and I was more present and alert as a result. Based on the feedback from participants, it must have showed.
Making time for the big picture
I’m glad I took the time to do some journaling and realise the bigger picture, taking my focus away from the little details that had started to stress me out. In the long term, failure is a friend and should be treated as such.
Looking forward, what mistakes will you embrace?