Why We Should Stop Glorifying Failure


Every year I do a little spring cleaning, tossing old magazines and the like. This year I have something else I’d like to cast out: the glorification of failure. Our culture appears to be fascinated with the concept, to a fault.

If you don’t believe me, just do a quick internet search of the word failure. You’ll find countless blogs and videos of commencement speeches on the many virtues of what, for most of human history, has been considered a bad thing. “Failure is good!” they tell us. “Just keep failing, and you, too, will succeed!”

Related: 21 Quotes About Failing Fearlessly

I call this Failure-ism.

All this bluster has the ring of authenticity, of counterintuitive wisdom. It can be quite thrilling to hear the most accomplished persons in our society share their heartbreaking stories of professional disaster. There’s just one problem: It doesn’t work. The Centre for European Economic Research, for example, has found that entrepreneurs who previously failed were no more likely than novices to launch a successful venture, echoing another study that found those who had failed before were less likely to succeed than complete neophytes.

As we work toward our own successes, let’s look at three ways to pitch Failure-ism into the dustbin.

1. Banish the “F” word from your leadership dictionary.

When I was a teacher in the Atlanta Public Schools in the 1970s, Failure-ism had just come into style, when “do-your-own-thing” freeform experimentation was all the rage. Rules went out the window. An emphasis on grammar and composition was replaced by an emphasis on stream-of-consciousness writing. In art, chance and happenstance ruled the day. The word “try” was tres chic, as though trying were enough. Failure became cool.

In my own classrooms, I began implementing a different approach: Instead of celebrating failure, we struck the very word from our vocabulary, along with can’t, won’t, zilch and nunca. Words are powerful things, and our focus was wholly on the positive.

On the first day of each school year, I’d pull out my grade book and tell all my young students: “As far as I’m concerned, everyone in this class has an A+.” Their eyes lit up. Some of these bright young souls had never had an A before in their lives. But now, according to their teacher, they did. For many students, this was their first taste of success. It’s a good feeling, a feeling everyone wants to feel again and again.

Related: Success Must Be Attracted, Not Pursued

2. Understand what lurks in the language of Failure-ism.

At the heart of Failure-ism is an unsubstantiated, almost romantic notion of the value of randomness. What so many motivational speakers seem to be saying is that if we just open ourselves to the possibility of failure, then something positive will happen, almost by a kind of magic. There’s another educational term for unhinged freedom and playfulness; it’s called “recess.” There’s a place for play in school and in business, absolutely. But in the classroom and the boardroom, most enterprises benefit from clearly defined expectations and crisp benchmarks.

As a teacher, instead of merely asking my fifth-grade students to “experiment with” or “try” writing a poem, I demonstrated for them the actual steps of composing a haiku, stanza and sonnet, from ideation to drafting to revision to final recitation in front of the class. We worked through protocols together before each aspiring poet launched into verse and voice. Soon my students saw that success was achievable, and they quickly formed a taste for triumph. After all, success engenders pride. Failure prompts doubt.

3. Review your notes from Psychology 101.

Remember B.F. Skinner? Positive reinforcement is the most effective way to get your team focused on success (for a quick refresher on operant conditioning, watch this hilarious clip from The Big Bang Theory). As the work of operations management researcher Dr. Bradley Staats has shown, “Individuals learn more from their own success than from their own failure.” Soon enough, success becomes a habit.

The same is true in the classroom. In Music Educators Journal, Joshua Boyd explains how one middle school transformed their music program by creating a system that rewards students—largely through public recognition—at each step of their musical development. Boyd writes, “Students will exceed expectations when they have an incentive program that provides constant positive reinforcement as well as a clearly charted path to success.”

Look at all those beautiful words: Incentive. Constant. Positive. Reinforcement. Charted. Path. Success. Be still my heart.

Success is intentional: Expect the best. Affirm the momentum of good. Join with your team to learn, study, practice and succeed. Failure might make for a good story some years from now, but success is a far more effective teacher.

Related: The 7 Arenas of Success

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Paula Wallace is the president and founder of SCAD, a private, nonprofit, accredited university with 100-plus academic degree programs and five locations in Atlanta, Hong Kong, Lacoste, Savannah, and online via SCAD eLearning. SCAD’s achievements in historic preservation have been honored by the American Institute of Architects, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and UNESCO. Paula is an honorary member of the AIA, a Georgia Trustee, and winner of the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award.

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