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Rethinking Failure, Learning, and Achievement

Failure is a fact of life.

Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my life have come as the result of my most painful failures.

If we don’t take risks, we can’t achieve greatness. We’re also likely to avoid spectacular, conspicuous failure; but, that’s what taking risks and learning are all about. We strive, we fail sometimes, we learn from our mistakes, we adjust our performance, and ultimately achieve our goals. Just ask anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument or to speak a new language how many mistakes they made before they achieved competence. Or ask anyone who has played a video game, “dying” hundreds of times before finally winning the game. Or ask Michael Jordan:
Jordan understands that failure is a fact of life when you take risks, when you strive for greatness: “I’ve failed over, and over, and over again in my life. And that is why . . . I succeed.”

The Failure Stigma in Higher Ed

I’ve long been perplexed by the higher ed culture that discourages (punishes) failure and shies away from introspective admission and discussion of our failures and what we’ve learned from them. Christopher Blake has summed up our irrational avoidance of the reality of failure in the learning process:

Rarely do we tell students that we do not know how much they will learn, that we cannot even be sure of the outcomes, that they will have to participate communally before they will learn, that learning may confront their status quo in an uncomfortable fashion or, even more important, that we all fail sometimes and so will they. Indeed, we do our best to exclude such shocking realities from our sanitized curricula and learning environments. . . . Any learning worth its name is troubling, engaging, shared, interdependent, and uncertain: It can be destabilizing to our present selves, individually and collectively.

Blake argues that we’ve abandoned legitimate opportunities for learning greatness because we’ve embraced (at least the perception of) safety and security afforded by nice and tidy summative assessments of student ability and performance. Instead, we should make our institutions “dangerous, risk-laden, and discomforting places for mental exploration, where we don’t have to be stellar individuals to justify our presence. Let’s cut the safety net from below our students but help them back on their feet when they fall. We might then begin to make the academy a more secure place for dangerous learning.” In other words, places where there’s lots and lots of formative assessment, consistently guiding and re-guiding learners as they fail, over and over again, iterating toward achievement.

Blake’s underlying premise is that we cannot learn without failure. Pretending otherwise is foolish and short-sighted. James Joyce observed that, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” Failure is a fact of life. It’s going to happen whether we like it or not. I’ve failed multiple times today. I haven’t kept track of all of my failures today (too many to count), but I just “failed” typing the word “haven’t” at the beginning of this sentence and had to backspace to correct my error. The backspace key is my indispensable friend. I’m constantly making mistakes while typing. But I keep typing because I get better and better the more I do it. The key is that I have a mechanism (the backspace key) for low-cost do overs. My typing behavior is what the folks at Slow Leadership call “conscious incompetence“:

Conscious Incompetence is the action of doing something that you know that you cannot do properly, competently, or at all, for the purpose of learning or practicing how to do it better. It’s consciously and deliberately going out of your depth to learn how to swim well. In the process, you also let go of your pride and allow yourself to appear awkward, foolish, and sometimes stupid.

Supportive Learning Environments

To help our students achieve great things, to do things that have never done before, we have to encourage and reward risk. We can’t punish all of the little errors along the way that novices are bound to make. We shouldn’t expect mastery the first time we ask a learner to perform a complicated task. We should instead encourage experimentation, learning through trial and error.

Honda seems to have figured this out. Failure is always one possible outcome when you try anything. If you’re not failing on a regular basis, you’re not striving for greatness:

Sarah Joy recently blogged that the problem isn’t so much that we fail, but how we fail and how we think about failure.

It seems to me that failure is inherent to dealing with any problem worth solving. That no effort, no matter how carefully planned, how painstakingly executed, will come off without hitches, without un-intended consequences. That we will probably (realistically…objectively) fail more than we succeed.

But, it also seems to me that failure is not a reason to stop striving. I’m not willing to throw up my hands and turn my back because I didn’t stop the spread of AIDS in Africa (or the gang activity in the middle school down the street) with my first attempt…or my fiftieth. But I would be equally foolish not to learn from those failures. If I am continually failing differently, those failures will become stepping stones, and eventually I will succeed.

Earlier this year, Business Week reminded corporate trainers and coaches that removing the consequences of mistakes and failure from employees is counterproductive:

Learning is accelerated when employees are taught to solve their own problems with instruction, direction, and demonstration and then allowed to practice until they learn to perform with excellence.

As we move into a new era of authentic assessment, driven largely by external accreditation requirements, we need to be careful not to leave behind the power of failure in the learning process.

Learning is About Possibility, Not Perfection

One final lesson about failure and learning comes in the unlikely form of a young man named D.J. Gregory who, despite his cerebral palsy, has embraced the game of golf. Readily admitting that his game isn’t perfect, he keeps playing, striving not for perfection for for “the possible,” being the best he can be. “If you have a dream,” he challenges us, “go after it. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do something.”

The video below chronicles his walking journey through every PGA event this past season, walking more than 900 miles to accomplish a goal he set for himself for the simple purpose of achieving something he wanted to achieve, something others thought was impossible for him to do. Along the way, he fell more than two dozen times. He kept track of each fall, got up and kept going. “If I fall, I fall. It’s just another challenge. I’m gonna fall. It’s just the way it is. I’m gonna do it. So you know what? You get back up and you learn from your mistakes and you don’t do it again.”

“I’m not embarrassed for who I am or what I’ve been through. I’m very determined and I will never give up on anything. I’ll never let anybody tell me ‘No.’”D.J. reminds us that sometimes learning is painful. Sometimes we fall. Sometimes we “fail.” But the only real failure would be to quit trying, to quit striving, to quit learning from our mistakes.

Please Share

I’ve shared here some of the most powerful examples of learning through failure I’ve been able to find. If you know of others, or if you have a story to share, please post here and I’ll compile what you share into a “learning by failure” page.

  • Wow. This is really whacked in the browser I'm using right now. Something must have broke. I guess I know what I'm doing this weekend. :-(

  • ron

    hi Jon,
    I like your blog, but the contrast here is terrible. I cant even read it unless I select the text to make a white background -- but light blue/grey on white is still pretty bad.


  • Ron--

    I guess it's time to tweak my CSS. :-)


  • steveehrmann

    As a doctoral student, I co-taught a course called "Failure in Human Systems" at MIT (1974). One lesson is that failure and learning are closely related: each usually involves a mismatch between expectation and reality. If it's failure, that mismatch is so threatening that the person turns away for protection and perhaps in shame. If it's treated as 'learning,' the person has the means and courage to turn toward it, to try figuring out the cause of the mismatch.

    One of our students, Lew Erwin, wrote a fascinating case study about the warranty system in consumer durables. In those days, TVs had tubes. Manufacturers created warranties in order to get data on which tubes were failing, and paid repairmen to replace defective parts, so the consumer would get a free call. Lew found that many consumers called in repairs for problems not actually caused by defective parts (e.g., set not plugged in). To avoid billing the consumer, the repairman would pull out a perfectly good component. The TV company was getting false data (that the tubes that were easiest to reach were also the most likely to fail.)

    I know this isn't the kind of moral you were asking for, but it says a lot to me about the complexity of both failure and learning.

  • Steve,

    This is great stuff. I love the idea that the exact same outcome can be perceived differently if we simple call it something else ("failure" v "learning"). I think that's one of the hallmarks of a great teacher (or parent for that matter)--one who helps the learner or the child see obstacles, foibles, and mistakes as stepping stones to greater knowledge and achievement.

    Thanks for sharing!


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