Failure: Today and Forever

Hi all, Joseph here with an experience I wanted to share with you all on the topic of failure.

For those who don’t know me well or haven’t kept up with me, this is my first semester teaching an introductory organic chem course to a small group of approximately fifteen students. However today, I screwed up.

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Figure 1:Molecule in question

For those of you who’ve taken organic chemistry and know how to name molecules, you know that IUPAC nomenclature is esoteric, indecipherable, but ultimately constrained to a set of rules that allows almost any molecule to be named precisely. However, while reviewing a question naming the molecule above, I stumbled, mistaking the branched alkane group, or the bit that looks like a chicken’s foot, for a substituent, and not as the main chain. While this may seem trivial, in front of an entire class who looks to you for guidance, failure is insinuated as ultimately trust-destroying. After all, who’s ever trusted a teacher who continued to make mistakes on the board?

It’s for this reason that I can understand and empathize with students who don’t want to come to the board when I ask a difficult question. The fear of failure permeates every fiber of our beings, especially those who strive to make learning look effortless, and these beings frame struggle as a concept only utilized by the weak-minded. However, I posit that the process of failure is integral to memory, to building cognitive burden, and attaching strong emotions to memory. (Failure in Learning)

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Figure 2: Can you spot the error in the cyclohexane chair?

I for one can speak volumes to the ineffable impact that screwing up has on learning. I can guarantee to you that I will (hopefully) never draw a chair cyclohexane wrong again, or mix up stereochemistry at a basic level under duress. However, in a society today where success is the only benchmark of growth, failure has been pushed either farther away from the public eye, or brought to the forefront with sensationalist articles about how one man conquered all his fears and ineptitudes to achieve the American Dream. (Sensationalist article example)

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Figure 3: An infographic summarizing Daniel Kahnman’s book: Thinking Fast and Slow

Failure sucks and our natural tendency is to shy away, to turn a blind eye to material that we’re uncomfortable with. It is common to use heuristics, or steps to make thinking easier to solve problems, only to be faced with adversity when problems increase in difficulty. Unfortunately, lazy thinking is not abnormal, but rather the norm when we make decisions and it is inevitable that we all fall prey to it, regardless of what anyone may say to the contrary. (Thinking Fast and Slow- highly reccomended) For that reason, I wanted to write, not only to describe the unpleasantness of these feelings, but to highlight a key insight that oft goes unspoken, but needs to be addressed for the sake of learning.

Your friend,

Joseph

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