On the importance of failure

Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.

-John Dewey

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.

-Michael Jordan (I love that he knows exactly how many times!)

I’ve been thinking lately about failure.

It came up when I was reading this great book about Stanley Milgram, one of psychology’s most famous researchers.  Milgram devised the famous “obedience experiments” where his participants continued to shock (or at least thought that they did) their fellow participants into levels of electricity which would have been dangerously painful, just because the experimenter said to continue.

Shock Box from Milgram's Obedience Experiments

Shock Box from Milgram's Obedience Experiments, photo by Isabelle Adam

But he also discovered that people are generally 6 social connections from everyone in the world (six degrees of separation), by an ingenious random letter experiment. And spent his career in New York’s City College doing urban psychology studies, elaborating on the social psychological consequences of living in cities.  There was one great study where he and his research assistants would go on the subway and ask strangers to give up their seats for no apparent reason.  One of them said it was the hardest thing they have ever done.  It made me wonder what he would have thought about Improv Everywhere (you have probably seen Frozen Grand Central, or the Food Court Musical, but a lot of the videos and stories are great.) or the other seemingly spontaneous crowds in public places singing and dancing phenomena.

Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk, photo by Steven Coles

Also, just saw Milk, about Harvey Milk, who was clearly destined for greatness beyond his post on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (although he did have some national political victories even in that role). And both of these (combined with my never-ending dissatisfaction with my own teaching) have led me to remind myself about how important failure is to learning, and to success, and how hard it is to have the courage to fail. Success is a great, but it is essentially an anti-learning drug for our brains. Succeeding, or to put it another way, happiness, tells our mind that there is no reason to change course, or do anything different, we are going along just fine. This is not the way to learn.

So, despite being an amazingly brilliant student, and doing his ground-breaking obedience studies while he was an assistant professor, Milgram failed to get tenure at Harvard. Later, he failed (actually pretty miserably) on a two rounds of NSF grant submissions (in the second, a new program officer who happened to be his friend resubmitted it for him). One reviewer wrote:

This is the weakest proposal that I can recall receiving in 18 years of reviewing proposals for NSF”

The movie Milk begins with Harvey Milk saying that he is 40 years old and hasn’t done a thing he is proud of.  Then, he moved to San Francisco, set up a small business, and ran and lost for several elected positions 3 times, before winning his Board of Supervisors position, and vaulting to the national stage as the public face of gay America. Harvey Milk would have been 81 this may. I wish he had been able to see New York’s recent legislative accomplishment

As I have my own sometimes-crippling fear of failure, in grant submissions, or paper submissions, or trying any writing on my own (beyond this stuff, which I am not sure whether it is good or bad). I try to remind myself that the opposite of success is not failure, but rather inaction. In fact, failure is not an obstacle to success, but often a prerequisite. Most things worth doing cannot be done well the first time. That’s why other people aren’t doing them.

So, I sometimes think about one of the challenges as a teacher as providing a safe space for students to fail. Students don’t seem to get the importance of this, given that the word “failure” has such negative undertones (and overtones too). For too many, “failure” means that you didn’t perform adequately, and that you didn’t learn anything. But then we scientists go back to our lab and fail and fail and fail, learning a little bit each time. Learning any skill is the same thing. Every master carpenter or surgeon has become a master because they challenged themselves and made many many mistakes (Yes! surgeons make mistakes! Read Atul Gawande’s Complications for an excellent reminder of that) If it was possible to do something without making mistakes, than computers would be doing it by now. But somehow we don’t let our students in on this little secret, by expecting uniform excellence on assessments. I think one key to doing this is separating early evaluations of learning from a grade. In writing, I try to say: you have understood the article that you have read, and fulfilled the requirements of the assignment. But you have failed in this way and can improve in this way (of course I don’t use the word “failed”) the writing needs improvement in this way. Failure is important. Acknowledging it, correcting it if we can, learning from it if we can’t. This is the key to learning. I try to do this when a particular aspect of a lesson doesn’t seem to work (and sometimes I tell myself that going in front of students with less preparation is ok for this very reason). I stop and say: “Wow, that was confusing. Did anyone actually understand what I just said? Who thinks they understood half of it?” Then, maybe one person will rephrase. Cognitive psychologists call this metacognition, and many memory studies have found that increasing this leads to increased memory. But the point is that success inhibits metacognition. If you are succeeding, why ask why?  Everything is fine, don’t think so much. If a goal of a college education is that lovely buzzword “lifelong learning” I think a good place to start would be lifelong appreciation of failure.

I am also a fan of some of the aphorisms of Thomas Alva Edison, who I learned about from reading a kids book in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. Not necessarily a nice man, but had some good ideas about failure. First, he was not a solitary genius. He had an idea factory, where he employed many many engineers. Second, the things he “invented” were not out of whole cloth, but mostly making things better. Like a better switch for a telegraph (going from duplex to triplex, for example). The ideas were really there, there were relatively few (if any) metaphorical light bulbs going off. Just a lot of hard work and incremental progress. And a lot of failure. I’ll leave you with one of his thoughts:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

-Thomas Alva Edison

Finally, I’ll leave you with a few more of my favorite links about failure. I find them inspirational, I hope you do too.


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On the importance of failure

  1. Jon says:

    >That was a very thought provoking post. Pennebaker didn’t get tenure at UVA, despite his ground-breaking work. A number of nobel prize winners were, prior to winning, considered crack-pots in their fields because their ideas were so radical. I like how you ended on a positive note too!

  2. Cathy says:

    >Cedar,I think the feeling of shame is one of the primary things that prevents us from learning from failure. If as parents and teachers we can take the shame away, students may be able to take greater risks intellectually and learn more. I think the shame we ourselves feel also inhibits are ability to learn from our failures. I am not sure how to take it away but it does seem to figure large in why failure is so painful. Cathy

  3. Cedar says:

    >Thanks, I had forgotten about Pennebaker, Jon, thanks for that. A student of mine interned in his lab last summer, after just sending him an email out of the blue. He seems like a real class act.I agree that shame is a pretty big mountain to climb, and it’s what stands in the way of productive failure. I think as teachers and parents if there was a way we could step away from grades, and even measures of performance, and urge more risk-taking with fewer consequences, there would be more confidence when the consequences are there. Anyways, thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Pingback: The Best Posts, Articles & Videos About Learning From Mistakes & Failures | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s