Recently, my friend Brian and his family stopped through for the night. Per usual, conversation took turns I never would have expected.

Brian teaches math and science, and he’s really keen to find the best ways to help kids learn. I respect how much he thinks about the subject, and it’s always enlightening to hear what new insight or method he’s come up with for getting things to stick in kids’ minds.

This time he mentioned an idea that sounded both strange and spot on. He wants to help his kids fail.

No, not utter fail the class, fail in a more controlled way. Often the best learning comes from trying something, messing it up, and then being able correct your approach. Brian wants to find a way to provide that–problems that are tough enough students will fail, but clear and simple enough that he can help them learn through it rather than just crash and burn.

This rings true to me in a lot of different areas beyond school. Software comes up, because there is no single “right” way to develop a given application (and a bajillion wrong ways). Any time I’ve returned to something I wrote as short as a year before, I see pitfalls and mistakes. While maintaining some other yahoo’s code is painful, it doesn’t the ouch factor that looking back over your own code can bring. But the only way to get things done is to try hard, apply the best technologies and practices we have, see where they fail, and correct.

It works with writing too. The biggest lessons that I’ve learned–many of them through my wonderful critique group–have come from committing time and effort to material that just doesn’t work. It’s only once things are written down, with someone else pouring over it, that the faults come clear.

Failure is a double-edged sword, though, because it hurts to get things wrong. As much as I know that it’s the only way to grow, that doesn’t remove the sucky feelings when you’re in the midst of it. Having to throw out half a novel and rewrite may bring some valuable lessons, but it is not an enjoyable experience.

But you can’t let that stop you. Lots of doubts plague me as I’m drafting my new book, concerns where things don’t measure up to my imagination, where I’m falling into old patterns, where I might need to make major changes later. But I can only do the best that’s in me now, fail on some parts, pick myself up, and try again.