Intelligent failures


Last updated 1/23/2024 at 10am

Plunging into 2024 we are at a new beginning, one that takes place every year when the clock strikes midnight on January first. With it comes resolutions to do “better” — better at the goals we’ve put in front of us. Determined, this year, we will succeed!

With that in mind, consider thoughtfully the value of not succeeding. The value of making mistakes.

Recently, on “Hidden Brain,” an NPR program, Amy Edmondson, a Harvard researcher and author of “The Right Kind of Wrong, The Science of Failure,” shared data that revealed when mistakes were allowed to be reported with no adverse repercussions, the effect was better results. Conversely, if mistakes weren’t discussed, nothing was learned. Her conclusion, errors and mistakes did not always indicate things would go badly.

An example the author gave was Silicon Valley during the early days of the internet when “fail fast, fail often” was desired. It was believed that something was learned every time that happened.

She also spoke of Toyota’s “Andon Cord” philosophy that allows a cord to be pulled whenever a mistake is detected. Out of this came discussion, investigation, and analysis, leading to a better, mistake-free vehicle.

Her main premise was that every mistake needed to be evaluated on its own and not lumped into thinking all failures are equal. This makes me wonder how we who live in Sisters Country look at mistakes. As our small town grows, mistakes are bound to happen. Some of you will remember back-in-parking that was tried in Sisters a few years ago. Thank goodness, discussion was allowed to happen. It was soon recognized as a mistake and became history.

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For many of us who have lived here a long time and seen the changes, it’s hard not to wish for what used to be. When I and my husband arrived the population of Sisters was 810. Now, it’s over 3,000, and I barely recall what it looked like then. It has faded from my view. What hasn’t faded is the atmosphere of friendliness and caring that greeted us. How vividly I remember Mike Reed walking out to our car to meet me as he handed Ted the keys to our new office. No contract had been signed, no money exchanged, only a handshake and a promise. I like to think that could still happen. If it did, in today’s climate of unrest, would it be a mistake? Would it be a mistake to try?

Of course, many errors need to be avoided. Reading about the grounding of the Boeing 737 airplanes tests the theory of the importance of inquiry. Even in the case of the Columbia Shuttle disaster, the fatal error that caused the explosion might have been prevented if a maintenance problem, discovered on a video the day after the launch, 15 days before reentry, had been taken seriously.

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Edmondson regards such opportunities as possible “intelligent failures” and engines for discovery. Edison, when confronted with his many failures, declared, “Failures! I haven’t failed. I’ve discovered many things that don’t work!” This same philosophy accompanies most scientific labs. Through failure and the ability to withstand setbacks, reframing happens, and true discovery begins. The incorporation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) into Sisters classes is doing just that. In the elementary school it is STEAM. Art has creatively been added to the curriculum.

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Not allowing yourself to fail, cuts you off from more productive opportunities. Are we in Sisters honestly listening to each other, asking questions, and exploring new ways to build our community? Citizens4Community, a nonprofit in Sisters, has offered many opportunities for discussion and dialogue where the goal is to create an atmosphere so that will happen.

Often, I have talked with parents about the importance of allowing their kids to make mistakes. When we succeed, we celebrate, enjoy it, and move on. When things end differently, we don’t want to repeat the mistake. We think about what went wrong, talk about what we need to change and learn. How often do we parents forget this and jump in to save our kids from facing difficulties?

SFF Presents: Big Ponderoo June 29 and 30, 2024

Thinking back to receiving those keys from Mike, I wonder what he would have done if we hadn’t turned out to be who we claimed to be. Hopefully, he would have learned to be more careful. At the same time, I hope it wouldn’t have changed his way of welcoming us.

An article, “10 Things You Should Do Now So Your Kids Know How to Deal with Failure,” by Dr. Jill M. Richardson spoke about this subject. I encourage everyone who works with kids to look for it at She gave practical ideas that any of us can follow. Among these were rescue dogs — not kids, talk about possible outcomes, and value of free play. In free play, creativity and imagination develop, kids learn negotiation skills, and when things don’t work out as planned, coping skills grow.

Sisters Area Chamber of Commerce

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