Failure is an Option

I didn’t fit the mold of the ideal student. As a result, my grades suffered, and a number of awkward parent-teacher conferences ensued. Questions about work ethic, intelligence, and focus always became the focal point of these discussions. My gripes with curriculum will be covered in another post, but what bugged me most was the attitude people had towards failure.

It seemed like the normal behavior was to fear failure. In some circumstances, failure didn’t even have to take the form of an ‘F’ on an assignment. It could be getting a question wrong on a quiz, or making simple mistakes; anything outside of perfection could be deemed a failure. At the time, my personal feelings on failing was that it allowed me to identify my mistakes readily. Sometimes I felt like making mistakes helped me grasp and retain concepts better because I could work on where I was deficient. But I was still scared and embarrassed by it.

The aversion for failure that had been instilled through my education had to be metaphorically beat out of me by my first research project. Mistake after mistake, setback after setback, I realized it was less about being right, and more about thinking on your feet. Being a problem solver didn’t just consist of finding a solution, it meant you accurately diagnosed the problem. More often than not you will be wrong, but being wrong meant you had more knowledge for the next attempt. In many ways, I’m very thankful for my exposure to research; it has greatly changed the way I approach problem solving.

But I wonder, if failure and mistakes are acknowledged as stepping stones to progress, why would we want to cultivate a fear of failure in academia? You’re taught that mistakes will be punished via poor grades, but when a mistake occurs, it could be the best opportunity for learning.

I was pretty interested in the interplay of failure vs. education, and I found a fairly compelling study from Columbia University. The premise is that humanizing people like Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Michael Faraday can have a profound effect on a student’s desire to learn science (source). When children are unaware that these intellectual demigods struggled either personally or professionally, they tend to have less incentive or desire to engage in science.

The researchers created a story based approach to educating students on the aforementioned scientists. They created three different types of stories: intellectual struggle stories (ISS), life struggle stories (LSS), and achievement stories (AS). Each category came with their own approach to the narrative: ISS described struggles experienced during the scientific process, LSS highlighted struggles experienced personally, and the AS focused on achievements.

The students were then given a survey to understand the impact of the story’s approach on the student’s motivation and performance in their science class. There are a number of interesting relationships and correlations, but at a high level, there was a profound positive effect on both the ISS and LSS groups on both motivation and performance when compared to the AS group. Additionally, they found students that were previously struggling had improved at a higher rate in the ISS and LSS groups.

One of the key takeaways was that highlighting struggle could be an integral component of education, especially in the scientific domain. After all, the scientific method is predicated on educated guesses that will more than likely fail, but when an individual doesn’t grasp that mistakes are routine in innovation and science, they can be easily discouraged:

“The message that even successful scientists experience failures prior to their achievements may help students interpret their difficulties in science classes as normal occurrences rather than a reflection of their lack of intelligence or talent for science.”

This is especially relevant as an early entrepreneur. If you take the build-measure-learn approach to making a product, you’re inevitably going to make mistakes. Some will be big, some will be small. Some customers will love your product, some will hate it.

As you move forward it’s important to get those failures to be productive for you and your team. Simply failing isn’t going to get you anywhere, but learning and adapting in response will. In fact, let’s just stop calling it failure. It’s only failure if you stop trying.