How and Why You Should Learn to Fail
- Student Tips
According to the laws of physics, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. There is a natural push-pull to how the world works. The same goes for success. In order to succeed, you need to fail. Otherwise, how do you know what success is?
We know: failure doesn't feel good. It feels especially bad when you've worked hard. But it's necessary for success. It's also a great way to uncover your strengths and determine where you need to work a little harder for success.
Failing well is about mindset. If you have a growth mindset about failure, you will have the energy and perspective to work harder. If your mindset is fixed with failure, well...you'll never improve.
Why failure is important
1. Imperfection makes you unique
Kids the world over are under tremendous pressure to be perfect. All too often, they are not allowed to fail. Their parents won't let them -- or they're not allowed to project outwardly that they're imperfect.
Not only is this trend dangerous psychologically, but it's also inhuman. As humans, we're imperfect.
We should showcase our imperfections as they highlight who we are as individuals. We all mess up. We all have to re-do things. Students who thrive are those who can embrace their imperfections, learn from them, and move past them.
How do you do that? Let go of shame. There's no shame in being human.
2. Failure is necessary to learn anything new
As James Joyce said, "mistakes are our portals of discovery."
To learn, you have to fail. Period. You aren't born into the world just knowing everything. Taking risks and failing lead to clarity and innovation. If you're afraid to fail, you will never push yourself beyond your comfort zone.
If you fall into the category of 'perfectionist', consider this exercise: force yourself to fail. See what happens. See what insights you glean. You might be surprised.
How to fail properly
1. Don't overreact
Don't quit a major because you did poorly in one class. While it's good to take a realistic look at your failures, punishing yourself doesn't do you any favors.
At Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, administrators noticed that many women were abandoning planned STEM majors because of poor grades in calculus. They started the Failing Well campus series to help students destigmatize the idea of failure.
They based their initiative on the idea that students who are used to earning perfect grades to get into high-powered schools struggle when they receive sub-perfect marks.
It's working. Students at Smith are becoming more sensitized to the idea of failure and trying to embrace failure as a step forward.
2. Keep trying
There's truth to the proverb, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." You need room to keep trying.
In 1953, a small company called Rocket Chemical Company and its staff of three wanted to create a solution that would de-grease and prevent rust in the aerospace industry. They called their first product WD-1 -- Water Displacement-1.
Ever use that common household product WD-40? Guess how many tries it took them to get the right solvent?
Keep at it, whatever it is. You'll get there.
3. Learn to take risks
Risk-taking is a hard one because you don't know the outcome. There's no certainty in success or failure.
How do you do this? Practice. You don't need your hand held every step of the way in the college process. You need to be able to handle challenge and change.
4. Share your failures with others
Students in Smith College's Failing Well program have to share their failures with their peers. In a 2017 New York Times article on the program, students and faculty had to share their personal stories of failure.
One student said, "I failed my first college writing exam." An English professor wrote, "I failed out of college." Another student said that a poem she'd written had "been rejected by 21 journals...so far".
The exercise is not meant to make anyone feel bad -- it's part of destigmatizing failure.
Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist at Smith's Wurtele Center for Work and Life, said, "What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature."
She added, "[failure is] 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."
Every student who attends her Failing Well series receives a certificate of failure: "You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college… and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human."
Hang that up on your mirror and take a peek at it every morning. You might just embrace the world, and your successes and failures in it, a little bit better.
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