Learning Is The Act Of Failing On Our Way To Mastery

Shane Parish asked Seth Godin what his definition of learning was. His answer stopped me dead in my tracks:

Learning is the act of failing on the way to mastery.

Godin goes on to unpack it with an example of open- versus closed-book tests. In a closed-book test, you memorize and regurgitate the answers. You might know the subject matter, but your proof of knowledge is exclusively based on getting the answers right, on the test, at that exact moment.

In an open-book test, in school or in most of life where even professionals turn to Google on the regular (I’ll admit it, I do it all of the time), the purpose is actual application.

“Crap, I can’t remember the answer but I know what to do with it. Let me look it up.” That’s rumbling with the real world. We didn’t fail the test for it. Our immediate recall failed, but then we moved right on to solving. This is learning.

Real work in the real world is an open-book test. Maybe mastery sounds like too high a bar, but even if we never reach some mystical Zen/Jedi status, our willingness to not know the answer and then go and find it? That will determine how far we’ll go.

It doesn’t matter if we couldn’t memorize it. It does matter if we are willing to figure out how to solve it. Keyword = willing.

Memorizing facts is fine. Passing a test is sometimes necessary. But, real learning comes from doing, from taking risks, and from experiencing failure. Real learning is what happens when we press through the darkness of not knowing and come out a bit more enlightened on the other side.

Listen to Seth. Learn and fail. All the way to mastery.

Listen to Seth Godin’s interview on The Knowledge Project podcast with Shane Parish.

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