Allowing Folks To Fail

2022-08-26 16:39:02 PDT

I got into a mild argument with someone I care about today. I had a plan about how to do a thing. Other Person thought it was a really bad plan, with too many risks. After some argument, OP won, and I did it their way. That went fine.

It reminded me, though, of a rule I've been working on following for some time now. Whenever feasible, allow others to fail.

That sounds like a horrible mistake. Let me clarify.

Let us say that I am a teacher (I am), and one of my students has a bad plan. They've found a terrible way to try to achieve an ill-thought-out goal.

As a teacher, I have an immediate obligation to try to help them. I should absolutely try to work with them to clarify their goal. I should absolutely try to help them see the issues with their plan and suggest a better alternative. Perhaps I will even need to discourage them from proceeding at all, because I cannot see a good plan even with their help. So it goes.

But I may get an argument. Or a bunch of argument. The student may be convinced that I am wrong. They may feel that the goal is clear, and that the plan will work in spite of my objections. Of course, it is now my job to persuade them otherwise… or is it?

Premise: People learn more from their failures than they learn from avoiding failure. Real consequences are more real than hypothetical ones.

Premise: I could be wrong. After all, I may be more expert than a student, but I'm far, far from omniscient. Maybe the terrible thing I've pointed out won't happen. Maybe the student will be really happy in their goal state.

SO I should always state my objections and concerns mildly, as observations and estimates. If my advice is ignored, I should default to letting the advisee go on. One of two good things will result: the advisee will learn, or the advisee will be right. In either case I have won and they have won.

The exception to this default, of course, is about consequences of failure. If I can reliably determine that a particular failure is both actually conceivable and sufficiently devastating, I need to do everything in my power to stop that. For example, dead advisees won't have learned anything; those who have ruined their lives won't appreciate the price of learning.

The good news is that if I have presented as a risk-tolerant advisor — somebody who allows advisees to fail — my occasional strong opposition will be taken much more seriously. Advisees will know it's coming from a place of goodwill and trust, not just an ego trip or argumentativeness on my part.

So I try to practice caution and humility. I won't let people go into failure blind, but I won't close most doors in front of them either.

I guess what I'm saying is that OP should have let me fail. Oh well. I was reminded of this lesson, and everything came out fine. So it goes.