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Learning to Fail

On a day celebrating winning the right to form a new country, I want to talk about failing.

I think it’s fair to say that no one sets out to fail, and therefore no one finds it particularly easy to fail.  When you have dedicated time and effort and emotional energy toward a project, no one wants to hit a gatekeeper — actual (like an employer saying you’re not right for the job) or intangible (like [cough] an embryo refusing to burrow in deep).

It’s also fair to say that some people are better at rolling with the punches.  They switch to Plan B and are equally happy with the new path.  Or they close the door on an idea and don’t look back.  They take a day or two to cry, and then let it go.  Or they double down and continue to bang against the same gate, assuming that at some point it will open with enough sustained force.

The New York Times recently covered an initiative at Smith College called Failing Well.  People are speaking openly about their most spectacular fails, even projecting them on campus screens, and in doing so, are trying to get people more comfortable with the idea that they won’t always see their best efforts rewarded; their best ideas embraced.

The New York Times writes,

“What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature,” said Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist in Smith’s Wurtele Center for Work and Life and a kind of unofficial “failure czar” on campus. “It’s not something that should be locked out of the learning experience. For many of our students — those who have had to be almost perfect to get accepted into a school like Smith — failure can be an unfamiliar experience. So when it happens, it can be crippling.”

When they talk about crippling failure, they’re not talking about people failing classes or getting rejected from graduate school.  They’re talking about the small failures of everyday life: failed relationships and club rejections and disliked room assignments.  I guess the school’s belief (and they’re not the only college participating in resilience training) is that if students can’t roll with the small stuff, how will they roll with the large stuff?

But maybe the answer is that there is no way to prepare yourself for the large stuff.  That you can only prepare yourself for the small stuff and then muddle through the large stuff when it comes your way.  I’m just thinking about infertility; nothing could have prepared me for getting through that with grace.

To expect a person to get through it with grace is too much pressure.  Now I’m not only dealing with the failure itself but being a failure at failing?  So, yes, I think resilience is wonderful.  Being able to problem solve and dream up Plan Bs is wonderful.  Accepting that you need to get through the suck and that things will hopefully be different in the future is wonderful.  But expectations beyond that feel too heavy because they feel tied to personality.  Some people embrace change and others run from it screaming.  All of that has to be taken into account, too.

Anyway, I thought the initiative was interesting as was the coverage of it and the questions asked in the article.  What are your thoughts?


1 a { 07.04.17 at 8:23 am }

This sounds like the antidote to helicopter parents who haven’t let their children fail. Teaching resilience should be a lifelong effort, not a college course.

But I appreciate the effort to be open about failures – maybe the end result will be less about learning to roll with failures and more about letting others know that you’re not perfect. It might open the door to being better able to get and give emotional support.

2 torthuil { 07.04.17 at 8:55 am }

I think it’s important to learn how to fail and quit, as well as to work hard and persevere etc. In my youth I was always told I was smart and could do anything blah blah and I assumed I had to succeed at everything I tried. That wasn’t entirely a bad thing but I did become a brittle person and I knew it and it made me reluctant to try things outside my comfort zone. Luckily I was able to recognize this problem in myself and I basically willed myself into situations where I knew I would not be awesome. And when I looked ridiculous or had to quit it was painful and uncomfortable but the world didn’t end, and it wasn’t imposdible to move on. I think it’s good to experience those lessons when younger because young people are usually more resilient and flexible but it’s something I have to keep reminding myself, and it does get harder to fail when you are an “established” adult life that is (usually) more predictable.

3 Working mom of 2 { 07.04.17 at 3:18 pm }

It seems whenever people celebrate failing it’s when they eventually found success. Like all the noise last week about JK Rowling being turned down 20 times or whatever. But these stories with eventual success don’t help prepare people who fail and don’t get later success.

4 Lori Lavender Luz { 07.04.17 at 3:38 pm }

This is true for me, too: “Now I’m not only dealing with the failure itself but being a failure at failing?”

One of the aspects of trauma parenting I’m learning about in my work is the importance of teaching a trauma-brain kiddo the skill of self-soothing, that self-talk resilient people seem to know how to do. It hadn’t occured to me that one could get better at this.

5 Jivf { 07.04.17 at 6:18 pm }

It’s true that no one sets out to fail, but at the same time most people don’t quite get that success isn’t guaranteed. I was taught resilience and how to get up and try again when things go south which has been incredibly helpful so far.

Even so, there’s nothing that could have prepared me for the recurrent failures of fertility treatment. I think that’s a completely different beast. You carry the baggage into each cycle which makes it harder to get up and try again every time.

6 Cristy { 07.06.17 at 8:26 am }

There’s been talk about these failing classes on a lot of campuses. It may seem silly, given that failure is an integral part of learning and should be lifelong, but the reality is most people don’t know how to work through failure. Even the small stuff. I do agree, nothing can truly prepare you for the large stuff, but when the small stuff results in suicides/complete breakdowns, it’s time to instill skills that the parents have failed to foster.

On that note, I do wonder if you can learn to survive failing the large stuff. Isn’t this what this community is for? I’m far from a master, but I think there’s a lot of value here.

7 loribeth { 07.12.17 at 8:57 pm }

I’m not quite sure how we “learn to fail,” or to fail better… (I’d be interested to see the curriculum…!) — but I do think we need to get the message across that it’s OK to fail, that it’s NORMAL to fail, and that we all fail at something, sooner or later. I think the difference between previous generations and this one is the pressure to succeed is so much greater. At the same time, there’s been such a movement to protect and cushion kids from disappointment — the “trophies for everyone” mentality. If you haven’t had experience with failure at these lesser things when you’re young, you’re going to be far less able to deal with the bigger life failures that will surely come when you’re an adult.

8 Jess { 07.24.17 at 9:31 am }

This has been open in my tabs FOREVER and I finally was like, “oh crap, I never commented on this one!” I find this so fascinating. I’m not sure you can teach someone to fail, but you can teach them to deal with failure gracefully, to learn from failure, to see that without failure nothing interesting has ever happened. I think there’s a mentality (that I see in my middle school students and their parents) that failure is bad, that everyone should have As, that everyone needs to be amazing at everything and if it doesn’t happen then either you are a big disappointment (or your teacher is for some reason). I am a believer in the hard things make you a better person, make you find out new things about yourself, and teach you perseverance. That course list was fascinating…I would love to see if a class could help me learn not to overthink (I don’t think so, ha ha ha). This is such a fascinating idea. I like the idea of teaching younger people the value of failure and how to survive it more than having handbooks in companies for “how to manage millennials” (a very real thing, my husband’s previous company that he worked for had a whole management course on “Managing Millennials”) that basically call for lots of praise and making sure that they never feel like failures and offering lots of incentives on a regular basis. Which is a disservice to everyone, I think.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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