Bookbag: Learning to Fail

July 27, 2015

THE CATALYST: Aaron Dinin ’05 graduated from Duke with an English major and a published novel to his name but had trouble turning that skill set into a career. To adapt, he taught himself coding and learned the back end of the Internet through Web development jobs, eventually moving back to Durham as the founder of a start-up called RocketBolt. Armed with a Ph.D. in English, a decade of experience, and the realization that conventional classroom learning does not adequately prepare students to recover from inevitable failures, he stepped back on campus to fill that void.

THE GIST: Dinin views strong writing as a key to success and a critical component of avoiding communication failures. He challenged students in the freshman seminar to create blogs and fill them with content that would connect with an audience, working with them to understand and adjust the errors in their plans of attack. “You learn what you did wrong, and then you iterate, and you try to get back toward that success,” says Dinin. “Don’t worry about it not working out—worry about it taking you two months to figure out that it didn’t work out.”

ASSIGNMENT LIST: The class split into two six-student teams to choose blog topics and divide the work. Functioning like a start-up, the teams assigned roles, developed social-media and public-relations strategies, and posted regular blog content to develop a brand and drive traffic to the website in pursuit of 1 million views. The most popular blog reached a few thousand people, but Dinin does not equate popularity with success. “The topic [the other group] chose was not as easy to drive and build an audience around, so they had this whole learning process about, ‘Oh my gosh, what you think people would be interested in reading every day is totally not the case at all.’ It’s much harder to find that.”

THE TWIST: 1 million visitors in four months. That was the target Dinin set for the blogs at the first class meeting, a goal he knew his students would fail to achieve. “I even tried to convince them in the course description on ACES when they signed up that this is impossible,” he says. “I don’t think they started grasping the impossibility until maybe three weeks in.” There were a few tense weeks as students coped with the reality that they would fall well short, but true to Dinin’s philosophy of experiential learning, surpassing the readership threshold was never a factor in students’ grades.

WHAT YOU MISSED: Dinin had to devise a lesson plan for 10:05 a.m. on April 7, the day after students celebrated Duke basketball’s national championship victory in Indianapolis well into the morning. To illustrate rejection therapy—in which participants immunize themselves to being turned down and overcome the fear of failure—he sent his class to Ninth Street eateries and told them to ask for a menu item for free. To his surprise, the majority of the class did not return empty-handed; some students walked back with free bagels, others with free coffee. “It was this great lesson that not only did it not hurt you if they said no, but a lot of times those people said yes,” Dinin says. “It was from asking and recognizing that, again, the worst possible outcome wasn’t failing, it was that they had never done it.”

  • Ryan Hoerger is an intern. He is a sophomore who also writes for "The Chronicle," Duke's student newspaper.