If you’re anything like me, around 9:15 p.m. when the last kiddo is tucked into bed, you aren’t quite ready to sleep, but also no longer in the mood to think. To avoid scrolling on my phone for hours, my partner and I have fallen into a habit of turning on the TV while taking care of small administrative tasks (signing kids up for hot lunch, checking the soccer schedule, answering a few niggling work emails, etc.). Our latest obsession is Ted Lasso, and we’ve been surprised at the balance of laugh-out-loud moments and leadership lessons. One I’ve been thinking about recently comes up early in the first season and then again later on: the importance of being a goldfish.
What does it mean to be a goldfish?
In his infinite wisdom, Ted Lasso tells Sam that goldfish are happy because of their 10-second memory—something happens, and they move on almost immediately. (Side note: like many things Ted Lasso says, this one is not really borne out by science. But for today, let’s assume he knows a lot more about fish than he really does.) In this episode, Ted encourages Sam to be a goldfish. Later in the season, after a big loss, his team does it too. The point: don’t dwell on things after they happen. Just move on.
The benefits of being a goldfish
Ted Lasso has a good point, as he often does. We typically get caught up in our heads about what went wrong—at home and in the workplace. I still remember forgetting about Spirit Day two years ago; I worry about the time I was late and if it scared my kids; I wonder if a work colleague noticed that I didn’t stop and chat when I saw her sitting at a table at a restaurant. These concerns get in my way and sometimes impact my ability to focus on what’s next and, more importantly, what matters. I hold onto things for longer than is helpful and let them loop in my head at night instead of sleeping. If everyone else has forgotten (or perhaps hasn’t even noticed), maybe I should do like a goldfish and forget too.
One of the great things about being a goldfish, in theory, is that if we dwell on our mistakes less, we can take more risks. We often shy away from trying something new because we are worried it won’t work out. Our minds go back to the last time something didn’t work out and how that felt. We don’t test out a new email campaign because the last time we tried something new, it wasn’t received well. We don’t write that blog post, fearing no one will read it—like that time in fifth grade when our blurb in the school paper went unnoticed. We don’t ask for a raise because a former boss said no—10 years ago. If we can remove the doubt when remembering our mistakes, we might do more and have better outcomes. Or, we might not, which brings me to….
The drawbacks of being a goldfish
I’ve been working in startups for many years now, and we all have similar mantras around risk-taking and the value of making mistakes. “Fail forward” is one of my favorites because it implies that mistakes and failures are OK. After all, these things happen, but they are more than OK, and we can celebrate when we learn from them. This is the problem with being a goldfish: If we forget what went wrong, we might repeat the same mistake again. Let’s take me being late for kid pick-up (this is on my mind because it may have happened yesterday): If I go total goldfish and forget that traffic can make a 15-minute drive take 45 minutes, I could easily be late again. Or to take a work example: If my sales team spends a lot of money going to a conference and reports back that it wasn’t worth their time, money or effort—I will want to remember when planning for next year so that I don’t register them again. My goldfish memory could get in the way.
So maybe, be a… bird?
It turns out that many birds are pretty smart and good at learning tasks (one article I read said a pigeon can memorize 1,200 pictures!) but I didn’t move from the according-to-Ted-Lasso 10-second memory of a goldfish to a bird for that reason. Instead, I like that a bird has the ability to see the big picture, giving them a necessary perspective. When considering what went wrong (or right) and how to learn from it, I think the ability to take perspective is key.
I recently listened to a podcast where Brené Brown discussed how she uses the “Five Fives” as a way to pause and have perspective: Will this matter in five minutes, five days, five weeks, five months, or five years? I think being a goldfish is probably right for things that matter for five minutes or five days or maybe even five weeks. But for the things that stretch beyond that? Take some perspective and decide: Do I need to hold onto this mistake to learn from it? Don’t let the negative emotions or feelings get in your way, and remember the lessons you’ve learned so you can apply them later.
And with that, it’s time to hop in the car for school pick-up—with a traffic buffer built in, of course.
Amy Yamner Jenkins is the head of schools and distribution for Outschool, an online marketplace for live, virtual classes for kids aged three to 18. She has spent more than 20 years working in education in roles such as a middle school teacher in Oakland, an after-school program provider in San Francisco, an investor through NewSchools Venture Fund and chief operating officer of Education Elements. Jenkins is a frequent speaker at education conferences and the author of several publications.