The Art of Failure

On a fine (rainy) Tuesday in September, LabXchange’s office was dark, silent, and empty. LabXchange members could be found, instead, crawling like rats, hanging off bars, hiding from zombie babies, swinging for coconuts, and so, so much more. (Just the usual, right?)

Hi! I’m Laya, and I graduated from Harvard undergrad in Neurobiology and then recently completed my Masters at the MIT Media Lab. At LabXchange, I’m mainly working on content creation for undergrads.

For our LabXchange team retreat, we spent the day at a place called Boda Borg. It’s similar to an “Escape the Room” experience, but there are multiple different challenge rooms—mental, physical, and mental+physical. Exiting successfully requires passing each of the rooms of a challenge. We quickly realized that we would fail constantly (way more times than we would succeed in clearing a whole challenge), but interestingly enough, Boda Borg presented failure to us in a way that made us want to keep trying. Failure didn’t discourage us or stop us; it fueled us to do better.

Keep on Trying!

The whole experience at Boda Borg constantly reminded me of the process of science and doing experiments. It also gave me some insights into the way we are trying to structure simulations, pathways, and assessments here at LabXchange.

We want to structure these components such that we encourage people to keep trying and keep learning despite potentially failing quite a lot through the process, or being thrown into a subject that people have never encountered before. Boda Borg does just that and here’s how:

The rooms build up in difficulty level. As you’re working on a problem, you start by understanding and getting through the simpler concepts of that problem before you tackle some of the harder challenges. In our simulations, we try and provide base level information and smaller problems that eventually will build towards bigger questions and problems.

The rooms are all timed, so you are compelled to just experiment and try anything. Sometimes, when you’re faced with a problem you’ve never encountered, you’re not sure what to do and you may be frozen with indecision or hesitancy. Boda Borg wipes away that period of indecision: you are ready from before you enter the room. You are thrown into the room and you have to act. In our LabXchange simulations, some of the questions we will ask might seem complex or novel, but we want people to just attempt. We don’t mind if people don’t know the answer, because the value is in learning from the attempt.

Honest Failure

You have multiple chances to try all the rooms at Boda Borg. This, I really felt, emulated the process of science. Boda Borg rooms can be seen as experiments, and each time we entered a room, we were making hypotheses on how to get through the rooms. Each time we failed, we would change an aspect of how we had approached the solution originally until we arrived at a solution. Once the solution worked, it had to be repeatable and reproducible, because when you fail at room 3, you have to come back to room 1 and do the process again.

In science, you’ll have many failures, and this is good in many ways, because each failure lets you get closer to understanding what might work. Honest failure in science shouldn’t be hushed or looked down upon. Remember the very famous quote by Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Science is filled with constant experimentation; just like at Boda Borg, where we start out with initial observations and hypotheses, try different methods, failed several methods, revised our hypothesis, and then tried again based on updated information.

Some of the challenges at Boda Borg, you might not get through. Instead of being discouraged though, we found ourselves proud of what we did achieve. In science, you may not always arrive at one neat, final solution, but along the way of doing science, you discover new insights, new methodologies that you can use and repurpose in the future. This is one of the reasons LabXchange wants to provide people with self-contained method videos and teaching videos, and short concepts in our simulations and pathways—so that people can repurpose these for their own learning endeavors.

Overall, the Boda Borg experience was a cool way of doing and experimenting and achieving without fearing failure. As we continue to build the LabXchange platform, we hope people can learn and experiment in the same way, without worrying about failure, or getting all the right answers. We hope people can learn for the pure joy of learning and experimenting.