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Seth Slater M.F.A.


Battling Away the Fear of Failure

Mission impossible for Navy dolphin?

One of the most difficult things I ever did as a civilian animal trainer for the U.S. Navy was teach a dolphin that it was okay to fail.

Like a vice-principal inheriting the champion problem child of the seventh grade, I inherited Flip from his fleet-side handlers because they'd decided he needed "behavioral retrofitting."

By the time I met him, Flip was a lot like many humans brought up in an environment of high achievers: he had come to believe that failure just wasn't an option. Ever. In fact, based on his experiences, Flip had good reasons for fearing failure. What he didn't know was that it was the fear and not the failure that was getting in his way.

Conditioned to believe that any failure would swiftly be followed by punishment, Flip had learned to quickly flee the scene anytime he made an error that his less-than-supportive human handlers could possibly construe as a behavioral crime. Problem was, Flip was no show stadium dolphin; he worked in the open water of San Diego Bay, and he could disappear into the Pacific Ocean anytime he chose.

The first thing Flip had to learn was that there would no longer be any harsh punishments to fear. Unfortunately, for that lesson to take hold, he would have to experience further failures, probably repeatedly - and that was a prospect he had already proven he didn't exactly relish.

Few of us do.

One of the things I learned when I began to teach college writing courses was that we humans often find ourselves in situations similar to Flip's. Disheartened by previous painful experiences with learning, many college students (especially during their first semesters) have a tendency to arrive late to class or not attend at all - classic avoidance behavior.

To help them over the avoidance hurdle, one of the things I try to do is artificially (and gradually!) engineer a small series of low-stakes failures.

Since we are all bound to experience failures en route to mastering something new, it is often useful for initial mistakes to be pre-planned by an encouraging coach, trainer, or teacher so that they can be experienced safely for what they are - opportunities to try a new approach in the search for something that works more effectively. Failures should be surrounded by plenty of successes, which can also be engineered into the learning process.

One of the keys to progress is honest and unambiguous communication about expectations during each phase of the upward climbing learning curve. Easier said than done since no one - teachers and trainers included - wants to be a wet blanket when it comes to someone else's hard work.

Let's face it, it often requires less effort to say something kind and encouraging than kind and constructively challenging. But before you take the easy way out, think of your own past efforts at learning something new. It's confusing to be on the receiving end of mixed messages. Rather than confuse to the point of frustration, it's far better to be clear about which efforts constitute success and which ones leave room for improvement.

With a little empathy, failure can be communicated clearly and kindly - when both teacher and student are members of the same species and speak the same language. What happens, though, when one of you is a dolphin?

In Flip's case, steady streams of reward in the form of fish snacks were delivered for anything and everything he did right - and they were interrupted for behavioral choices that distracted him from his goal.

One of Flip's tasks was to follow a boat in the open water of San Diego Bay where, for a curious dolphin, there are lots of points of interest below the waterline. As long as Flip remained by the side of the boat, all sorts of behaviors were rewarded: an eye-rolling glance toward the trainer, an especially powerful kick of the tail flukes to keep up the pace, or any change in movement (no matter how small) that inched him closer to the boat.

But a sideways glance toward the entrance of the bay or a bright burst of bubbles signaling a vocalization as he passed by his dolphin cronies (no chatting during class, please!) - and his bite-sized trail of fish snacks suddenly dried up, at least for the moment. No painful punishment, just an interruption of reward.

At first, even that small interruption was too much for Flip to handle. Fearing the worst, he would skitter away across the waves, convinced that his failure would earn him punishment. Instead, the boat putted steadily onward, pausing and circling now and then to give Flip a chance to change his mind and try again.

Whenever he did approach the boat, Flip was greeted with enthusiastic hand waves and fistfuls of fish rather than the scolding he expected. There were some long days of pausing and circling the boat before Flip was finally convinced that a consistent effort was all he was really being asked for.

In a matter of months, Flip emerged from his cocoon of fear to become one of the leading dolphin candidates for recruitment into a Pentagon-sponsored project for advancing scientific understanding of dolphin sonar capabilities. The task would require Flip to voluntarily perform dozens of complex behaviors in partnership with leading acoustics researchers. And volunteer he did. The Navy has video to prove it. Who says it isn't okay to fail?

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2012