Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Don't Fear Failure

One of the problems I think we have in schools is that we train students to fear failure, to avoid it at all costs. Now, to be clear, I'm not suggesting you go out and fail all your classes. But I am suggesting that you should take some risks in your learning. That instead of avoiding things that are hard (because you might fail), you challenge yourself to step up and take on things that are difficult.

I think sometimes students would rather not try (and fail) than try and fail. In the first option it's easy to say, "Oh, I just didn't try." But in the second option it's much harder, because you have to admit that you did try and still weren't successful. But here's the key - almost anyone who has done anything worthwhile has failed. Not just once, but multiple times. We often learn more from trying something and not succeeding than we do from trying something and succeeding, especially if we limit ourselves to only trying "easy" things that we know we'll be successful at.

Here are a couple of videos that illustrate this point that I think are worth your time. The first is from the TED Conference I attended, which speaker Brene Brown (who also has an excellent TED Talk) described this way:
You know what the big secret about TED is? . . . This is like the failure conference. No, it is. You know why this place is amazing? Because very few people here are afraid to fail. And no one who gets on stage, so far that I've seen, has not failed. I've failed miserably, many times.
The key is still to try hard things, even knowing that you might fail, but then learning from it. So the first video is from TED Fellow Myshkin Ingawale. It's a little over 6 minutes, so please take the time to watch it. The important point to realize is that he built this device - and it failed. So then he built it 32 more times until it worked. After watching this video, think how important his invention is and how many times he had to "fail" to get a working version.

The second video is designed to be motivational, but I still think it has a good message about "failure."

So, what are you willing to try (and perhaps fail) at?

Update 3-22-12: From @kaherbert comes this relevant post from Neil Gaiman 


  1. Unfortunately, the academic and business worlds do not reward trying and failing. If you fail, in many cases, you're not even in the running when it comes to scholarships, internships, grants, graduate school admissions, etc. And if you do that at work, you can look for a pink slip next week. Only the privileged can take a risk.

  2. Aine - I would agree with you on the academic side (hence the mention in the post of schools need to do things differently), but I would not agree with you 100% on the business side. As evidenced by the folks at TED, and by business folks we've brought in here to talk to our staff, they're looking for folks that will take (educated) risks. All the "routine" work is either automated or outsourced to someplace cheaper, they don't want automatons.