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From Randy Pausch: "Be the First Penguin" - Optimism Tip of the Week

By Dr. Russ

Wednesday is “Just One Thing Day.”  On Wednesday, I try to respond to the oft heard request: “Please, please Dr. Russ tell me “Just One Thing” to get another moment of optimism in my week.”  The “Just One Thing” request has inspired the “Optimism Tip of the Week.”  This week’s tip comes from our featured book of the month: The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch in the form of a metaphor for optimistic living known as, “The First Penguin.”

Randy Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University.  When teaching a “Building Virtual Worlds” course, he encouraged students to attempt hard things and not to worry about failure.  Desiring to reward that kind of thinking, he started presenting a stuffed animal, a penguin, as a prize called “The First Penguin Award,” to the team that failed to achieve their stated goals but took the biggest risks in trying new ideas or new technology.  He states:  “. . . it was an award for glorious failure, and it celebrated out-of-the-box thinking and using imagination in a daring way (p.149).”

What is the “first penguin?” According to Pausch, "when penguins are about to jump into water t hat might contain predators, well, somebody's got to be the first penguin (p.149).At first he called it, “Best Failure Award,” but that didn’t go over well with the students.  They didn’t like the word “failure.”

Why are we so afraid of failure?  Why is it so hard to strongly endorse the following statement:  “I look forward to, embrace and enjoy failure as an opportunity to learn.” 

There are many reasons, not the least of which is that failure is often associated with ridicule and stupidity.  Most of us spent 12 to 16 years in classrooms that had grading systems based on how well we did compared to other students, and not according to how much improvement we made.  We were graded on how we performed relative to others.  An academic caste system was quickly created and those at the top were thought of as “smart,” and those below “less smart.” Psychologist, Martin Covington, author of numerous articles and books on “self-worth,” has shown us that student motivation is undermined because the way to look “really-really-smart” is to get an A without having studied, and the way to not look “really-really-dumb” is to avoid studying so when you get a D or F you can say, “I didn’t try.”  Students learn to manage their self-worth, smart vs. not smart, not by trying harder, but by trying to “appear smart” and avoiding the “appearance of not being smart.”   In this competitive, performance oriented culture self worth and optimism are undermined for both high and low achieving students.  Similarly, employee motivation and optimism are undermined in businesses and organizations that create such competitive, performance oriented cultures.  Failure is an embarrassment, just not tolerated!

A Dr. Russ Metaphor – How to view failure as a joy and a blessing - Take a play from Paducah, Kentucky to Broadway. 

Plays that make it to Broadway go through a lot of testing grounds in small and then gradually larger and larger cities before being put on Broadway.  A new play might start in some small or medium sized town, then move to Charlotte, NC, Baltimore, MD, Philadelphia, PA and then to the “big lights” if progress is continually seen in audience response.  Every night in each city the playwrights sit in the back of the house taking copious notes on audience reaction, noting laughter, or lack thereof, in a comedy, and emotional connection, or not, in a “tragedy.”  The play is re-written every night and the actors learn the new lines the next day; and so it goes night after night and month after month until the play reaches “Broadway Specs.” 

"Just One Thing" - Optimism Tip of the Week

“Be the First Penguin” – Optimists revel in the opportunities presented in a failure.

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Reader Comments (1)

Great post!!

September 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPositively Presenty

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