On My Mind: Teaching Failure Might Actually Be a Good Thing

Summer 2018

By Donna Orem

A few years ago, the NAIS leadership team traveled to a member school in New York City to visit its maker lab. We engaged in a project that eighth-graders had just completed, developing portable lights using mason jars and circuit boards. The project was more difficult than we imagined, and the students assisted us when we struggled. I wrestled with soldering, something I’d never done before, and quickly became quite anxious. The narrative running through my head was, “How will this look to my colleagues if I fail at this task? What if I am the only one who can’t achieve success?” Instead of basking in the joy of learning something new, I was letting my fear of failure sabotage the experience. I reflected on that day for some time, asking why my fear of failure was so strong in that instance. I had no trouble engaging in new initiatives at work, so why was this so fear-provoking? Was it something in my DNA, the culture of my organization, the expectations of society, or something else?
Fear of failing is pervasive in our society—generally listed among the top 10 fears. Most therapists will tell you that fear of failure can be the No. 1 barrier to success. For children, it may be the greatest inhibitor to learning. In her book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, author Jessica Lahey probes the relationship among failure, learning, and success, exploring why some schools are inadvertently teaching kids to hate learning. She credits her own students with helping her see the light, quoting an essay by one of her eighth-graders:

Some people are afraid of heights, some are afraid of water; I am afraid of failure, which, for the record, is called atychiphobia. I am so afraid of failing that I lose focus on what actually matters: learning. In focusing on the outcome, I lose the value of the actual assignment and deprive myself of learning.

Ironically, as most brain researchers and teachers know, failure is essential to learning. Writing for Forbes, Simon Casuto, cofounder and president of eLearning Mind, summarizes the findings of a Scientific American study that explains how the brain reacts when we make a mistake: Your brain begins compiling information about the experience and actually gets bigger throughout the learning scenario. And, while the brain returns to close to its original size after the learning experience, it retains new neural pathways by taking in new information, compiling the key takeaways from trial and error. Making mistakes matures the brain, resulting in more efficient synapses and fundamentally altered neurons. In short, failure can actually make you smarter.

If research confirms the value of failure, why do adults fear it—and why are we inadvertently passing this fear on to our children? How can we alter this path?

Leading the Way

The rise of anxiety and depression among young adults has spawned much research around the link between the quest for perfection and the fear of failure. To combat this, many colleges and universities are now launching programs to underscore the merits of failure:
  • Harvard University’s Success-Failure Project creates opportunities for discussion, reflection, understanding, and creative engagement regarding issues of success and failure.
  • Stanford University’s The Resilience Project combines personal storytelling, events, programs, and academic skills coaching, with the goal of shifting the perception of failure from something to be avoided at all costs to something that has meaning, purpose, and value.
  • Smith College has introduced a new initiative called Failing Well. Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist in Smith’s Wurtele Center for Work and Life, says, “What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature.” She gives students who enroll in her program a certificate that states: “You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college …and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.”

Three Kinds of Failure

But what about those of us who are out of college—is there hope that we can embrace failure in our lives and begin learning from it? Harvard Business School Professor Amy C. Edmondson has made a career of studying failure and helping organizations practice it more regularly. In a Harvard Business Review article, “Strategies for Learning from Failure,” she points out that the research on learning from failure is incontrovertible, but that organizations that actually do so are rare. Most leaders think failure is bad, she says, and even if they acknowledge failures and learn from them, the message they give is so the organization will not repeat the mistake. Instead, she says, leaders need to understand the different types of failure and how the blame game gets in the way of learning. In many organizations, the culture supports the notion that “if people aren’t blamed for failures, what will ensure they try as hard as possible to do their best work?”

How do organizations change that attitude? They can begin by not seeing all failures as equal. Edmondson sees three distinct categories of failures:
  • Preventable failures in predictable operations
  • Unavoidable failures in complex systems
  • Intelligent failures at the frontier
In the first category, most failures are avoidable and simply indicate a lack of good training or well-documented processes. In the second, failures are due to the uncertainty of the work and are often unavoidable. Unlike the first category, to consider these kinds of failures bad, she suggests, is a misunderstanding of complex systems. In complex systems, we must constantly be identifying and correcting small failures to avoid more consequential ones.

In the final category, she suggests failure is good and desired because it is the only way to gain new knowledge and move forward. We would not have new drugs or new technologies without these kinds of failures. When we are at the frontiers, we need to fail fast and often.

Edmondson implores leaders to create environments in which it is safe to speak up. Her research offers five steps to take:

Frame the work accurately. Develop a shared understanding of the kinds of failure that can be expected in a given work context.

Embrace messengers. Reward those who come forward with bad news, questions, concerns, or mistakes. Celebrate the news first, and then figure out how to fix the issue or learn from it.

Acknowledge limits. Be open about what you don’t know and mistakes you have made. If leaders take this action, others within the organization will follow.

Invite participation. Create opportunities for people to detect and analyze failures, and engage in intelligent experiments.

Set boundaries and hold people accountable. People feel safe when leaders are clear about what acts are blameworthy and when leaders hold people accountable for those acts.
We are at a time of great change in education. Given our independence, we have the ability to lead into an unknown future. But to do so, we will need to create cultures that allow for intelligent failures at the frontier. We need to set up experiments for the purpose of learning and innovating—and that means planning to fail. When our students observe us doing so, they are more likely to accept failure.

As for me, I am learning to embrace failure, but have decades of unlearning to do. I recently tried a new interviewing technique that we are learning at NAIS and was just horrible at it. Instead of getting anxious, I laughed at my incompetence, listened to feedback, and performed a bit better the second time out. Baby steps.▪

Learn more about higher education’s initiatives to help students embrace failure:
Harvard University’s Success-Failure Project
Stanford University’s The Resilience Project
Smith College’s Failing Well

Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.