Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Don't Fear Failure

(Posted this to my class blog, but thought I'd share it here as well.)

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. Mr. Fisch,
    Hello, my name is Angela Smith and I am in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama and allow me to say that this was exactly what I needed to read/watch! This blog post not only helped me but was also very factual about students being afraid of failure. Just as you mentioned Mr. Fisch, students have been taught to fear failure, when in reality the only way you are going to succeed higher than before is to know what you did wrong to correct it. I used to be that student; I always wanted to do it right the very first time and conquer it. Now, I appreciate those failures. I honestly believe I would not be the responsible person that I am today if it was not for the mistakes that I have made in the past. Whether it was something dealing with school or not, I am very grateful for my mistakes, and as a future educator I would want my students to know that as well.

  2. Very thoughtful post, Karl. I admit I'm guilty of being reluctant to take risks; mostly because I've seen how unforgiving people can be. It's something I'm working on.

  3. Now if only we could build failure into the school system. Something get a grade for persevering, a grade for the number of times you failed, and a grade for explaining what you learned through the process. Hmmmm. I kinda like that. Wish it could work for teachers too. LOL.....really great thoughtful post, Karl. Thanks.

  4. This was simply beautiful, and so true. We indeed need more people who are determined and courageous. I really admired what you stated towards the end, about how life is not all about money but trying to make the world anew. That is exactly how I feel about becoming a teacher. If I can encourage one child out of all the students that I will have in my classroom, I will then know that my mission was accomplished. Knowing that you were apart of a child's success is worth more than all the money in the world. Thank you for this beautiful post, Mr. Fisch.

  5. I agree. We have all failed from time to time at things. Learning how to handle failure and how to eventually succeed are great skills to teach students.

  6. I agree with you completely. So often our students are so afraid of failing and disappointing themselves and others. I often have encouraged students to do their best and that is all we can ask of them.

  7. I absolutely agree about the points you make about failure. To me, failure is an opportunity to learn more about yourself and what it takes to succeed! I am a basketball coach, so one of the many motivational stories I tell is about Micheal Jordan. He was cut the first time he tried out for his high school basketball team. However, this "failure" drove him to practice harder and make the team the next year he tried out.
    The rest is history as he became the best basketball player on the planet!! In fact, here is a quote from Micheal Jordan.
    "I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying."
    Michael Jordan
    Another quote I enjoy is Winston Churchill.
    "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."
    Winston Churchill