Failure the Great Teacher.

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." Samuel Beckett

The 4th key to learning.

What is key in learning? This is the fourth of a number of keys that are meant to bring understanding about what learning is and how leaning can be improved by understanding the message of those keys. This key is about how failure is not only necessary to learning, but in itself embodies learning. This key explains the function of failure in the learning process and how it can and should be embraced rather than avoided.

All important learning comes from failure.

If there is no failure there is no learning. If things are easy to learn you are not really learning. In his book "Beginners" Tom Vanderbilt explains:

"Failure is an essential part of learning. We tend to remember the milestone achievements (for example, the day the baby first began to walk) and forget about the many, many falls that came first. Behind every highlight reel there is a huge B-roll of mistakes.   

Errors. In their book "Make it Stick" Brown, Roediger and McDaniel have a lot to say about errors as follows:

" our Western culture, where achievement is seen as an indicator of ability, many learners view errors as failure and do what they can to avoid committing them. The aversion to failure may be reinforced by by instructors who labor under the belief that when learners are allowed to make errors its the errors that they will learn.

This is a misguided impulse. When learners commit errors and are given corrective feedback, the errors are not learned. Even strategies that are highly likely to result in errors, like asking someone to try and solve a problem before being shown how to do it, produce stronger learning and retention of the correct information than more passive learning strategies, provided there is corrective feedback. Moreover, people who are taught that learning is a struggle that often involves making errors will go on to exhibit a greater propensity to tackle tough challenges and will tend to see mistakes not as failures but as lessons and turning points along the path to mastery. To see the truth of this, look no further than the kid down the hall who is deeply absorbed in working his avatar up through the levels of an action game on this Xbox video console."

This video game is an interesting example. The thing is that video games are quite difficult even on the first level and cannot be played without making errors and also anyone starting a new level is likely to fail. Why then are children not traumatized by making these errors and failing? Well these errors and failures have no disastrous consequences in the lives of the players. They can return to them as often as they like and fail or succeed there are no consequences other than in the game itself. It seems to this site that the very reason that children may be drawn to this type of low stakes testing may be a desire to build some feeling of mastery that they find lacking in education because it so often avoids errors and failure. By giving learners no chance to experience low stakes errors and low stakes failure the current system of education may be depriving learners of necessary feelings of mastery.

Failure. Although Brown, Roediger and McDaniel side stepped actual failure in the first part of this in the second part here they make quite clear their idea on failure as follows:

"A fear of failure can poison learning by creating an aversions to kinds of experimentation and risk taking that characterize striving, or by diminishing performance under pressure as in a test setting. In the latter instance, students who who have a high fear of making errors when taking tests may actually do worse on the test because of their anxiety. Why? It seems that a significant portion of their working memory capacity is expended to monitor their performance (How am I doing? Am I making mistakes?), leaving less working memory capacity to available to solve the problem supposed by the test. 'Working memory' refers to the amount of information you can hold in mind while working through a problem, especially in the face of distraction. Everyone's working memory is severely limited..." 

Testing terrors. In their book "Make it Stick" Brown, Roediger and McDaniel then provide evidence for the adverse effects of being afraid of mistakes and failure as follows:

"To explore this theory about how fear of failure reduces test performance, sixth graders in France were given very difficult anagram problems that none of them could solve. After struggling unsuccessfully with the problems, half of the kids received a ten-minute  lesson in which they were taught that difficulty is a crucial part of learning, errors are natural and to be expected, and practice helps, just as in learning to ride a bicycle. The other kids were simply asked how they had gone about trying to solve the anagrams. Then both groups were given a difficult test whose results provided a measure of working memory. The kids who had been taught that errors are a natural part of learning showed significantly better use of working memory than did the others. These children did not expend their working memory capacity in agonizing over the difficulty of the task. The theory was further tested in variations of the original study. The results support the finding that difficulty can create feelings  of incompetence that engender anxiety, which in turn disrupts learning, and that 'students do better when given room to to struggle with difficulty.'"

Undesirable difficulties. In their book "Make it Stick" Brown, Roediger and McDaniel then say the following:

"These studies point out that not all difficulties in learning are desirable ones."

Too weak to become strong. Here they are referring to the idea presented earlier in their book showing that difficulties in both recall of knowledge and the absorbing of new information can both greatly improve future recall of such knowledge, a process known as desirable difficulty. However they seem to be implying here that this fear of testing is an anomaly or exception to the desirable difficulty rule. This site holds that this whole idea needs clarification. Consider the ancient bit of wisdom: "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." While this is true for most people it is not true for all people. This is because most people are sufficiently strong to deal with something that nearly kills them and become stronger for it. But what about the people that can not deal with being nearly killed?

Learned helplessness. The idea of learned helplessness is that if an animal or person is put in a situation where the find they cannot escape or are unable to prevent something painful happening to them they will learn that they are helpless and stop trying to do anything about their situation.

Learned self-determination. Learned self-determination is kind of the opposite of or the antidote for helplessness. Self-determination in its simplest form can be created the opposite way helplessness is created by simply showing the animal or person that their life experiences show that they can always do something to improve their situation. You put learners in situations that are difficult but not so difficult they cannot escape or improve their situation. You gradually make the difficulty incrementally greater with each trial while they manage to improve their situation each time so that they become increasingly more confident and competent. If they fail you might leave the difficulty where it is until they find their way through it. The point is that mastery and competence improves with each step through the incremental difficulties and thus the choices the trainer or teacher provides. Ultimately you get a person or animal that will never stop trying.

Why are learners afraid of tests? This site suspects that the reason we are afraid of tests is that we have rarely experienced tests where the stakes of the test are low or minimal. On top of this when we enter school we we are quickly taught that mistakes are bad and that we should be afraid to make them and that failure is like the end of the world. This is not just the fault of schools and teachers though. It is heavily embedded in every aspect of socialization in Western society. In the experiment above the learners were freed (temporarily) from this fear in a ten-minute lesson so it clearly does not need to be there. See the choices page for more on this.

Protection and fear mongering. We are now living in a world where parents are so afraid for their children that they tend to do far to much for their children in order to protect them from dangers. Thus their children have learned sometimes to be helpless and often never to achieve any kind of mastery or achieve any feelings of competence. These things can only come about by overcoming real world obstacles and not having them removed from their path. Children are both over protected and made to feel afraid of everything not he least of which are mistakes and failure.

When desirable difficulties become undesirable. To return to our original point all difficulties are desirable but only if we can overcome them or at least believe that we can. The problem is that western society has made it very difficult to believe this and so it sometimes does not work. A few pages on in their book "Make it Stick" Brown, Roediger and McDaniel say:

"Elisabeth and Robert Bjork, who coined the phrase 'desirable difficulty' write that difficulties are desirable because 'they trigger encoding and retrieval processes that support learning, comprehension and remembering. If, however, the learner does not have the background knowledge or skills to respond to them successfully, they become undesirable difficulties.'"

"Clearly impediments that you cannot overcome are not desirable. Outlining a lesson in a sequence different from the one in the textbook is not a desirable difficulty for learners who lack the reading skills or language fluency required to hold a train of thought long enough to reconcile the discrepancy.If your textbook is written in Lithuanian and you don't know the language, this hardly represents a desirable difficulty. To be desirable, a difficulty must be something learners can overcome through increased effort."

Failure without fear. What we need is a world where we can face small low stakes difficulties, or obstacles at a very young age. We need a world where we can make small low stakes mistakes, or commit small low stakes errors at a very young age. We need a world where we can fail in small low stakes ways at a very young age. We need a world where we can take risks in small low stakes ways at a very young age. These difficulties and stakes should be allowed to increase with competence and earned trust. The result will be less fear, less failure, less mistakes and much more resilient adults.

How to see failure.

Negative knowledge. Almost all learning comes from negative knowledge, but we prefer to view it and understand it as positive knowledge. How do you know that a dog is a dog? Children learn this by initially associating the word dog with a few objects. Children then automatically generalize this to many other objects by virtue of their similarity. Having done this the child has not learned much. Real learning comes as he/she gradually eliminates all those objects that are not dogs from his understanding of what is a dog. Real learning is taking a few observations, creating a conjectural hypothesis about those observations, and then testing the conjecture to find and eliminate that which is incorrect, the errors. 


Learning is change and failure provides us with the feedback necessitating change. The idea of feedback comes from cybernetics. In cybernetics a system is regulated by feedback. We can consider success and failure, right and wrong, as indicators in the feedback system of learning. If we are wrong or we fail, the indication is we must stop what we are doing and do something else. If we are right or successful the indication is that we can just keep on doing what we are doing. Success does not require change. Success merely corroborates that our action is correct, action based on information we have already learned in the past.

"There is no failure. Only feedback." Robert Allen


Mistakes are small failures. Mistakes can weigh us down. Or mistakes can pave the road to achievement. In his book "Failing Forward" John C. Maxwell gives us an an acronym for mistakes. This acronym provides a way of perceiving mistakes as sign posts on the way to achievement. He says mistakes are:

"The person who doesn't make mistakes is unlikely to make anything." Paul Arden

Mistakes are a discovery resource.

If we make no mistakes we may be avoiding a very important resource for discovery. The new, the unlooked for, often may never come into existence if we eliminate all errors. Some of the world's most important discoveries were the result of error. In their book "The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes put it as follows:

"Trying to minimize or avoid slipups could have stifled some very awfully important innovations. So-called accidents have been wholly or partly responsible for products such as Gore-Tex, Nylon, Teflon, Silly Putty, penicillin, shatterproof glass and the microwave oven." 

It's wrong to be right most of the time!

Most of the time you do not need to be right. Every time you are right, you do not learn anything new. You simply sail along blithely doing the things you have learned in the past. Worse than this, every time you are right you seem to verify what you know and become more certain about it. When you continually prove that you are right in this fashion you tend to become more rigid, until it's like you are set in concrete. You become opinionated, smug and unable to change.

"Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly." Robert F. Kennedy

"No man ever became great or good except through many and great mistakes." Wi

am E. Gladstone English Prime Minister.

It's right to be wrong most of the time!

Most of the time you need to be wrong so you can learn and be comfortable with being wrong. Being wrong is an opportunity for change. Being wrong gives you two very important types of information. First it tells you what does not work and where that occurs. Secondly it give you clues as to how it might be done better or improved. Armed with this information you are in a position to guess how it might be done better and thus cause a change in your knowledge (learning) and change in how you view the world (perception).

"There are no mistakes or failures, only lessons." Denis Waitley

"Don't be afraid to make a mistake. But make sure you don't make the same mistake twice." Akio Morita

The myths and lies concerning success and failure.

Anyone who tells you that they have always been successful is either lying or their life is so fragile that it will collapse in the event of any setback. When we see an article about a successful person and there is no mention of failures we know we are looking at a résumé where the failures have been left out or covered up and the successes have been highlighted. It is a bit of a paradox that only failure can prepare us for dealing with failure in the future. The more unbroken success we have the more afraid we become of failing. This is not just true of people, businesses and organizations of any sort become more afraid of failure the more successful they become.

"Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." Confucius

The tangled web of engagement in life.

In their book "The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes tell us that success and failure are two sides of the same coin. Success sets us up to fail and failure sets us up to succeed. Success and failure are really more similar than they are different. They are not always easy to tell apart but we should not be concerned with doing so.  It is actually counter productive to try to distinguish one from the other. Farson and Keyes put it like this:

"In most lives, successes and failures are as tangled as fishing line after a bad cast. Failure begets success followed by failure and success once again. When we look back on our lives the parts that seemed triumphant can pale into insignificance, while episodes that appeared trivial at the time now look crucial. Successes, we see in hindsight, made us complacent, while our setbacks pushed us."

"Success is never permanent, and failure is never final." Mike Ditka

In their book "The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes tell us that identifying work and people as being successes or failures provides no help to economies that must adapt quickly, as is the case today:

"Using success and failure as a yardstick limits our ability to create, innovate and take risks, which is the only way to stay afloat in the emerging economy."

Set up to fail by success.

Success sets us up to fail in many ways. Some of these ways are caution, guilt, the loss of friends and inability to be creative.

  1. Success causes us to become cautious.

  2. The main way success sets us up to fail is that it makes us less and less able to take risks. When you are not yet successful you have little to lose and so taking risks comes easy. But when you have a big house, a successful company, a position of power and prestige, a beautiful wife, all the cars and food you might ever want, well then you just have to stop and think before you take a risk. Indeed, you tend to play it safe. Why? Well, it just seems crazy to put all these wonderful things you have at risk. Unfortunately, our health, our wealth, our feelings of accomplishment all depend on change and rebirth all of which depend on taking risks. All these things can become so successful that they become paralyzed by an inability to take risks. Likewise, people who are unable to take risks in their personal lives are just as dead or failed as those big companies. In their book "The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes put it like this:

    [Success] "deprives us of motivation to make needed changes. Posttriumph, we have more to protect. That in turn makes it harder to to sustain success. It's as hard or harder to remain successful as it is to succeed in the first place. Ask any coach. Just as weight can be more difficult to keep off than take off, prominent figures of all kinds discover that getting to the top is easier than staying there.

    ...The price of success too often is a loss of focus and daring. The tendency is to try to protect one's accomplishments by shifting into cruise control. This syndrome gets played out repeatedly in the television industry. One network climbs to the top, begins to play it safe, repeats what worked in the past, slips behind, then gives way to a competitor on the bottom who's taking creative chances because it has no reason not to."

  3. Successes make us complacent.

  4. Big companies fail because they become complacent. When everything is going well we start to feel invincible.  Everybody is telling us how great we are such that we begin to feel we should not have to make much effort or work hard. We can become obsessed with what others think of us and try to live up to that image. We may even come to believe ourselves, that we do not have to work hard and therefore stop giving any but the most minimal effort. Thus we become ripe for someone really working hard to outdo us. This happens to people, but more readily it happens to businesses and organizations.

  5. Success can make us bored.

  6. Success leaves us susceptible to to boredom. Boredom in turn in turn makes it almost inevitable that we will fail. In their book "The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes put it like this:

    "Managers have to have to accommodate employees who find success boring by finding ways to keep their action level up. ...Even as our rational brain says avoid problems, our nervous system begs to differ. More complications, it pleads. Please! No problems mean no challenges, too little stimulation. I want to be more aroused not less! That's why our life can feel more meaningful when things are not going well than when they are."

  7. Success causes us to doubt our relations with others.

  8. When we become successful we cannot help but wonder if people are our friends just because we have become rich, powerful or a celebrity. The most successful people in the world are often complete failures in their friendships. How many rock stars and actors become drug addicts or alcoholics or even commit suicide? Success in the eyes of the world is no guarantee of a successful marriage, success with friends, or success of any kind as a person. Celebrities are for the most part complete failures as happy contented people.

  9. Success makes us feel fake or guilty.

  10. If success come too quickly with too little effort it tends to feel fake. Many of those who are adulated by millions of fans like actors and musicians must feel fake and guilty. Julie Cristie for instance never felt she deserved to be successful. Maria Shriver also thought she was a failure despite having married Arnold Schwarzenegger. In their book "The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes tell as story about James Autry who didn't feel he deserved to be the successful CEO of The Meredith Magazine group. The story in part is as follows:

    "Autry had lunch with a friend who was the vice president of of one of the country's largest companies. Midway through the lunch, his friend asked abruptly, 'Do you ever get the feeling that one day they are going to come into your office and say, 'Okay, Autry, we found out about you?' 'Yes yes,' Autry replied without hesitating. He told his friend that he felt that way often. And him? The friend nodded. They both laughed. 'It's as if we are still little boys playing with the big boys,' Autry friend said 'We don't really belong here do we?' 'Of course not' agreed Autry 'In the big office with the big salary and the perks? Of course not. That's for the big boys.' 'And do you know what this tells us?' the friend continued. There are no big boys, only us little boys.'"

    Even though we remain successful in the eyes of others we can feel like failures. In our own eyes we are failures. Surely it's better to be a failure in the eyes of others than in our own eyes. The more we feel like failures the more likely it is that others will see us as failures and so we fail.

  11. Success crushes and hobbles innovation.

  12. Innovation is something new and promoting and manufacturing something new means taking a chance. It means you are risking what you already have to have something else. It is well known in company circles that the more successful a company gets the more difficult it becomes for those companies either to innovate at all or to profit from the the innovations they produce.

    Big companies have missed out on innovations over and over again. Partly they are blind to the possibility of new innovation. They are complacent, they may not see it as superseding their product. They see trying something new as a risk that might fail. But even if they see the opportunity and know the risk is small compared to the risk of doing noting, they would still rather crush the new innovation than participate in the change while they are still successful. IBM is a classic case of almost allowing themselves to go out of business before they finally were able to implement a new innovative product. IBM's profits and successes made everyone feel they must be doing everything right so why would they change anything.

    The Xerox company had the most creative research and development team that has ever existed and yet the Xerox company never implemented any of the great innovations that were produced there. They passed them along and sold them off, all because they were at the time so successful that they were unwilling to change. Their team at the Palo Alto Research center (PARC) developed the technology that made personal computers possible. They developed the icon studded interface that eventually became the familiar graphic interface of the Mac and then Windows. They developed the laser printer technology that went to Hewlett-Packard. They developed desktop publishing which two of their people left with to start Adobe. Jim Clark used research he did at PARC on 3D graphic imaging to create Silicon Graphics. Another researcher left with word processing technology that became Word at Microsoft. The computer mouse was also first developed at PARC. As Farson and Keyes say:

    "Xerox dealt itself a winning hand - several winning hands - and then threw them in because it was reluctant to pursue innovations outside its core business. ...Xerox is a classic example of a business that was too successful." 

    Woody Allen movie director and comedian said. "If you don't fail now and again, it's a sign you're playing it safe."

Set up to succeed by failure.

Failure sets us up to succeed in many ways.

  1. Failure allows us to take risks.

  2. When you fail there is often a kind of relief. What happens when you fail, is never as bad as the anxiety you feel just before you fail. The fear seems to ebb away and a calm descends on you. This release can give us the courage to rise up and try again. As long as we also occasionally have a few successes the discovery that failure is not the end of the world can allow us to try again with less fear.

    "Being young is greatly overestimated... Any failure seems so total. Later on you realize you can have another go." Mary Quant

  3. Learning from failure.

  4. The realization that we can and should learn from failure is perhaps the most critical step for effective learning. We need to become able to see that every time we fail, we are presented with an opportunity to learn, and one that we do not get when we are successful. We can come to view failure as an advantage rather than something crushing or disabling.

    Henry Ford said, "Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently."

    Joan Littlewood, a theatre director said, "If we don't get lost we will never find a new route."

  5. Failures can make us resilient.

  6. The leaders of industry (big business people) have to be resilient. How often do we here of some big businessman, who fails and is declared bankrupt, only to read in some magazine a few years later, he is swaggering around with his pockets full of money again? Many of us would like to believe that there is some scam going on, and that he did not lose all his money at all. But the truth is probably that he was resilient and just bounced back. He did lose all his money, but the failure did not faze him. He just started again and made the money back. Entrepreneurs are very much this kind of person. If they fail in one venture, they simply start another venture or sometimes the same venture with a new twist. Often entrepreneurs fail many times before they succeed.

    The Yiddish call it chutzpah. Some call it moxie, but whatever you call it, it is the courage to try again. It is fearlessness in facing danger and taking risks. It is the life enhancing ability to take a chance, not just with yourself but a chance that will have a huge impact on others. The entrepreneur in David Silver's book "The Entrepreneurial Life" points out that the things we are afraid of are often unworthy of fear, when compared with the really important concerns of life:

    "What can the bank do to me if I don't pay them? They can't harm me physically. They can't hold my children to ransom. They can't kill me."

    Abraham Lincoln said, "My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure."

    Thomas Edison said, "I haven't failed, I've had 10,000 ideas that didn't work."

  7. Failures can make our successes better.

  8. Failures on the way to eventual success can come to be associated with with success enabling us to come to enjoy failure as part of a more important and more complete success. There is a big difference between a success where we succeeded easily, and one where we have overcome obstacles and setbacks. This is especially so where we have failed along the way, but still went on to succeed. Every time we are able to push our way past failure to eventually succeed, it becomes easier and easier. This goes on until finally an association is forged between success and failure, allowing us to feel pleasure in the failures. More importantly, the overcoming of these setbacks and failures can make us feel much better about the success. We can feel it is hard won and truly deserved.

    Soichiro Honda of Honda cars said, "Success is 99 percent failure."

Too quick to judge.

In their book "The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes point out, that present day societies tend to decide whether someone or something is a success or failure, and label them in such a way that changing that label becomes very difficult. They said:

"We are too quick to call someone or something a success or a failure when the jury is out (which is true in most cases). These two are simply not easy to sort out, untangle, tell apart. All they are is labels we hang on complex events trying to simplify them. What we usually end up doing is oversimplifying them. When we win and when we lose can be utterly dependent on the circumstances, timing, the economy, even shifts in public mood."

Long after Microsoft was a flourishing company, Mary Gates, Bill's mother, thought of Bill as a failure because he dropped out of Harvard. Many successful people who dropped out of school to start up a business probably also had mothers who thought they were failures. When vice presidential candidate Edmund Muskie cried because his wife was being attacked by the press he was branded as a failure. But when Bob Hawk (Australian Prime Minister) cried on TV about the fact that his son was a drug addict, the Australian people thought it was wonderful that he could express his feelings in such a human way. He continued to be seen as a success. Al Gore lost his campaign because he was too wooden on TV, because he couldn't express his emotions. He was seen as a failure. It's all a matter of timing, and differences or change in public perception.    

The similarities of success and failure, winning and losing.

Successes and failures are both very intense emotional experiences. We may weep tears of joy or tears of pain or feel like crying during either success or failure. In their book "The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes give the following perspectives on winning and losing.

"Win or lose, participating in athletic contests takes them to levels of passion enjoyed by few. That level grows out of striving to win, but is every bit as dependent on the danger of loss. ...Those who study gamblers are usually surprised to discover how indifferent they are to loss. Gamblers themselves are fond of saying that the next best thing to winning is losing. Some even think there's more to be said for the latter. Losing demands more valor, more character, they say" [This is true of any kind of contest where people strive to be the best, political, creative or athletic.] "The risk of failure is far more captivating than success in the bag" 

"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." Thomas Edison

Failure and success, winning and losing are all very intense experiences that exist on a plane beyond labels of good or bad. Farson and Keyes explain it like this:

"At peak levels of intensity, emotions we consider positive or negative are hard to tell apart. Tears of joy differ little from ones of grief. The moans of a couple making love resemble those of wounded soldiers. Both pain and pleasure are aroused in the same center of our brains. The body itself can't distinguish strong feelings of any kind - anger, love, fear, excitement - until the mind tells it which is which.


Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi did a study of people in many walks of life, and found that people tended to enter a state of elevated consciousness, when their abilities were just closely matched by the challenges confronting them. This state, he found, was closely associated with feelings of pleasure and happiness. If the challenges were too great, the people would become anxious and unable to enter this elevated state, and if the challenges were insufficient, they would become bored and also unable to enter the state. He called the state 'flow' because when in the state their actions tended to be at the optimum of functionality and yet seemed to almost effortlessly flow. Athletes call this state being in the zone. He found people could become so absorbed in performing a task that they became oblivious to winning or losing failing or succeeding. The joy, the feelings of accomplishment, came from being so fully engaged in the task. It seemed to Mihalyi that everything became peripheral to functioning at this optimum level of performance. The more a person entered this state the less anxious or bored they became, and thus were able to face greater and greater challenges.

Risk takers, the people who are prepared to fail, and people who love to fail.

People who do things, are people who take risks. They have to be able to get up again, and try again after they have failed. They do not think failure is the opposite of success. They believe complacency is. Some of these people not only are prepared to fail, but are actually at their best when facing a crisis. Mayor Rudy Giuliani display little in the way of leadership skills till the advent of the crisis of the World Trade Center towers. Suddenly he became a master of crisis management. He was in his element. He is not alone in being a rising star in time of crisis. Winston Churchill rose, from an almost failed life, to inspire Britain as prime minister during the second world war. Farson and Keyes add the following:

"Some consider setbacks a badge of honor, unmistakable proof that they're bold risk takers. Far from hiding their blunders, they brag about them."

Among these risk takers and risk lovers are the scientists who make breakthroughs; the entrepreneurs that shape our business world, and the inventers/technologists that change how we live. Many, perhaps all of them, have had setbacks, false starts and complete failures. They have been wrong far more often than they have been right. It is no coincidence that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are among those quoted above.

John W. Gardener American educator said. "One of the reasons mature people stop learning is that they become less and less willing to risk failure."

The Risk Poem

To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To cry is to risk appearing sentimental and soft,
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To show up and expose your feelings is to risk exposing your inherent self,
To place your ideas, your dreams, your desires before people is to risk their loss,
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To show strength is to risk showing weakness,
To do is to risk failure.
The greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing,
The person who risks nothing gets nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
He may avoid suffering, pain, sorrow, but he does not live, he does not love,
He has sold, forfeited freedom, integrity,
He is a slave, chained by safety, locked away by fear,
Because, only a person who is willing to risk not knowing the result is free.

Experience Inc.

In their book "Experience Inc." Joseph and Suzy Fucini explain why older people may have more of what it takes to be an entrepreneur as follows:

"By the time he or she has reached mid-life, the average person has traveled through the peaks and valleys that mark most career paths. This gives the entrepreneur an overview that makes it possible to see beyond temporary setbacks, leaving him or her better equipped to bounce back from any reversals encountered when starting a business. Because of this resiliency, the older entrepreneur is often able to turn a mistake into a learning experience."

In his book "How To Get Ideas" Jack Foster tells the story of a friend of his who was opening an office for a major national advertising agency in Los Angeles. When asked how he was going to choose from hundreds of applicants said:

"I must confess I am partial to people who have failed. People who have failed know that failure's never permanent. Too often people who haven't failed at anything think failure's a disaster and so they're afraid to take chances. And because they've never failed, they think they know it all. I hate know-it-alls. Besides, you're always getting rejected in this business. That's just the way it is. I want people who I know will spring back."

Youth Inc.

While experience can provide older people with a better perspective on failure because they have lived through failure, youth also provides a new perspective on failure today. In their book "The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes point out that the current generation growing up is being greatly influenced by social changes in the way failure is valued:

"For any number of reasons, younger cohorts the prospect of going belly up less daunting than their predecessors did. Partly it's simply they have less to lose by taking chances. Partly it's because they have known only affluence (the Depression to them is the subject of black-and-white documentaries on public television). It's also due to an attitude shift, however. These new workers realize - as a few thoughtful people always have - that pursuing success is like chasing the horizon, and that failure is an integral part of an interesting life.

Why we fail.

We can fail for many reasons. We can fail because we are wrong, where the theories that we hold are disconfirmed by subsequent events. If this happens we have an opportunity to form new conjecture or to revise and improve our understanding of reality. We may fail because we do not have sufficient skill. If we fail because we have insufficient skill, we have an opportunity to learn what we did wrong and improve our skill. Indeed the whole business of learning a skill is one of continual failure until the relevant skill is learned sufficiently well. Even then we fail. We can also fail because some unforeseen event has occurred. Our anticipation and skills might have been sufficient but we did not take everything into account. We did not have all the information. But failure can actually provide the information we did not have before. We have learned from the failure and our ability to predict has increased and the likelihood of not failing next time has increased.

"I honestly think it is better to be a failure at something you love than to be a success at something you hate." George Burns

"Lord, deliver me from the person who never makes a mistake, and also from the person who makes the same mistake twice." William James Mayo American Surgeon, Founder of Mayo Clinic.

The failure freeway.

It would be nice if every time we made a mistake we learned from it and never made the same mistake again. Alas, most of us tend to make many mistakes, over and over, till we finally learn, and in some cases we never do. The fact is we each develop a set of behaviors for dealing with life. For some of us this means behaviors that are counter productive, which lead us to make the same mistakes again. John C. Maxwell calls this state of being, the failure freeway. He illustrates both the difficulty in trying to exit this freeway, and how to do it, with the words of Portia Nelson called "Autobiography in five short chapters":

Chapter 1. I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless. It isn't my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2. I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I am in the same place, but it isn't my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in. It's a habit. I am helpless. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It's my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter 4. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

Chapter 5. I walk down the another street.

"Failure is in a sense the highway to success, as each discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true." Poet John Keats

The Optimist and the Pessimist.

How we see the world is important, because it largely determines what it is that we learn. The pessimist sees the negative and thus can only learn about the negative. The optimist sees the positive and thus can learn about the positive. For the optimist the glass is half full and for the pessimist it is half empty.

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." Winston Churchhill

Although this site completely arbores pseudoscience such as is presented in the book "The Secret", there is often some glimmer of wisdom hidden in such books. For instance the words of John Assaraf perhaps best encapsulate the problem for the pessimist as follows:

"Here's the problem. Most people are thinking about what they don't want, and they're wondering why it shows up over and over again."

The fact is that there are very logical reasons why optimism will help you to be successful and why pessimism will not help you to be a success. This was made clear by the sociologist Robert Merton in his book "Social Theory and Social Structure" when talking about stereotyping as follows:

"These stereotypes are not entirely removed from reality: like most stereotypes, they are inflexible exaggerations of actual tendencies or attributes. But in the course of social conflict, they become self-confirming stereotypes as sociologists shut themselves off from experience, that might force them to be modified. Sociologists of each camp develop highly selective perceptions of what is going on in the other. Each camp sees in the work of the other primarily what the hostile stereotype has alerted it to see, and it then promptly takes an occasional remark as an abiding philosophy, an emphasis as total commitment. In this process, each group of sociologists becomes less and less motivated to study the work of the other, since it is patently without truth."

It is likely that this process has a very wide and general application to all opposing camps and opposing ideas so as to become a general principle of human behavior. It is very easy to change the above argument so it is about optimists and pessimists. "But in the course of social conflict, the two groups become self-confirming stereotypes as each shuts themselves off from experience, that might force them to be modified. Optimists and pessimists each develop highly selective perceptions of what is going on in the world. Each one sees in the perception of the other a craziness that their inner model of reality cannot comprehend. Both the optimist and the pessimist see in the word view of the other what their hostile stereotype has alerted them to see. The fact is the pessimist sees endless confirming instances of why he should be pessimistic and the optimist sees endless instances that verify his position. In this process the pessimist and the optimist become less and less able to see the world as the other does, because it is patently without truth."

Attracting success.

Clearly then you might say the optimist and the pessimist are equally deluded because neither can see the point of view of the other. This is not so, for by confining their individual perception of the world view they are also creating such a view for themselves, by what they are learning. The optimist does not learn to fear failure because he knows that it is just a setback on the way to to success, an opportunity to learn how to succeed. The optimist is looking at how much he has acquired and how much is yet to be gained. 

The Pessimist.

The pessimist's world is biased, concentrating on horrors, with thousands of people hopelessly afflicted, with imminent terrorist attacks, with disease epidemics ready to strike, natural disasters ever present, chronic lack of money and persistent lack of health. They are so busy worrying about what is not available or what they do not seem able to get, that they miss the window of opportunity. The opportunities are there, they come along all the time. But the pessimists are so focused on avoiding pain and being safe, that they are unable to seize the moment and embrace the risks involved in being successful, even if they were able to see the opportunities. The pessimist is looking at what he doesn't have and can't get.

"Nothing is so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness is it to be expecting evil before it comes." Seneca 4 B.C. - 65 A.D.

The Optimist.

The optimist's world is filled with wonders, with good things anticipated to eventuate in the world. The optimist expects a world full of miraculous escapes, of people helping others, of deserved success stories, where good luck and effort prevails. They see the world situation as improving, becoming more aesthetic and always fascinating.

Optimism has its good and bad elements. We tend to equate optimism with positive thinking and there are in fact three sorts of positive thinking.

  1. Rose colored glasses.

  2. There is the type positive thinking that perceives the world as being okay all the time regardless of whether it is or is not okay. This is delusional positive thinking which is usually not very helpful.

  3. The mystical secret.

  4. There is the type of positive thinking where people can see clearly that things are not okay when they are not, but who hold firmly to the belief that things will get better and that they will get better because they believe it will get better. This is a type of pseudoscience come mystical gobble-gook that can lead people into delusionary activities. This is a kind of positive thinking which can help in giving us hope, but the change seems to be left up to a benign fate or a mystical influence of the universe.

  5. The growth mindset.

  6. There is the type of positive thinking where people can see clearly that things are not okay when they are not, but where it is believed that things can be improved if they or others take action, make an effort, and work toward a goal of improving them. This mindset only promotes the belief that things can be changed for the better by people through effort.

Self-actualized optimism.

This site endorses only this third type of positive thinking, and this is what we understand real optimism to be. Optimists see every hardship, every failure as a challenge. They see other people as potentially virtuous, when they are not virtuous, because they believe such people can be helped through effort to become virtuous. They see a testament to what is possible to improve, in the skills that they have developed; They see their health as a tribute to what they have done to improve it; More importantly they see setbacks, mistakes and failures, as mere obstacles necessary to be overcome by effort to achieve success. The world for them is usually a good and happy place, and if it is not, this serves as an opportunity to make it so.


Optimists, being constantly aware of the potential for good things around them, see all the opportunities to be successful. The opportunities are there. Opportunities come along all the time, and the optimists are so sensitive to them, that they stand out in their perception in sharp and clear contrast, almost as if they were being given a sign. Not only that, but they have such confidence in their own ability to eventually achieve success through hard work, that they revel in taking those risks needed for success. This enables them to continue on despite setbacks and failure.

"An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?" Michel de Saint Pierre

Catch 22.

The problem with failure and being wrong is that they embody a lack of success, and success is necessary to give us the confidence we need in being able to fulfill our own needs. Not only that, but failure in most cultures is usually experienced as pain or punishment. Thus the expectation of failure leads to avoidance behavior. Instead of learning how to predict and change the world, non adventuresome people learn not to even try to predict or change the world. So on the one hand, we are actually learning much more from our failures than from our successes, but on the other hand failure can lead us away from, or stifle our ability to learn in the future.

It is a mistake to suppose that men succeed through success; they much oftener succeed through failures. Precept, study, advice, and example could never have taught them so well as failure has done." Author Samuel Smiles

"A failure is a man who has blundered, but is not able to cash in on the experience." Elbert Hubbard

Failure Management.

The answer to this catch 22 is to take failure and success and manage them so that we get the maximum benefit in learning from each.

  1. Failure in doing is learning. Success motivates us to try and do.

  2. The effort of doing must result in success or failure in any human endeavor. What we know is this; when we fail we learn, but it is success that motivates us to continue trying. So both failure and success are truly necessary to learning. What is needed is a balance between success and failure.

  3. The number of failures is more damaging than the degree of failure.

  4. The first thing to note in trying to manage failure is that the number of failures is more damaging to learning than the amount or degree of failure. In other words a lot of little failures are more likely to stifle learning than one big failure. Why? Because a lot of small failures means a lack of success. If this happens to us, we begin to experience not trying as a kind of substituted reward or negative reinforcement that protects us from the pain of failing. The result is less and less trying.

  5. A lot of small successes are more important than the degree of success.

  6. Similarly a lot of small successes will help promote more learning and confidence in learning than one big success. Every time we succeed we are rewarded by the intrinsic rewards that accompany accomplishment, achievement, etc. Small successes have the advantage in that they are easy to produce. We can therefore produce small successes more frequently, because the performance skills needed, are easier to duplicate and quicker to learn. The fact is what we all need is the experience of success, a success so obvious that we know we have succeeded without needing to be told.

  7. Breaking up tasks or goals into easily manageable ones.

  8. A task or a goal is something we are trying to do, but it can be expediently broken up into sub tasks or sub goals. Every one of these sub tasks or sub goals provides us with intrinsic reward whenever we accomplish it. If what people want accomplish seems too daunting, they should break it in smaller units keeping in sight what they want to do. In this way they will be more likely to be successful in accomplishment.

  9. Risking failure.

  10. It must be understood however, that the idea is not to break tasks or goals into such small units that failure is impossible. No real learning takes place unless you are willing to fail. The whole idea in building up confidence in ability to accomplish things, is so that you can reach the point of being able to take a risk. You must reach the point where being wrong is perceived as being useful. It becomes a way of knowing how not to do something. It should become a way of discovering in yourself an increasingly better and more perfect performance. If we are to do anything important, we must be willing to risk being laughed at, ridiculed or being just plain wrong.

  11. Success and failure the negative and the positive path.

  12. Success and failure are interrelated. Though we need to learn to experience failure as a positive benefit, it is, none the less, very painful for most of us. Once we get into a cycle of rewarding ourselves for not trying, the possibility of doing anything becomes remote, so that the ability to learn atrophies. This fear of failure can drag us into a downward spiral, where we try to do only those things that seem easily achievable and gradually try even less and less of these. On the other hand, a number of small successes give us confidence in our ability to accomplish, so that we increasingly try more and more difficult tasks and goals for ourselves. Eventually we reach the point where we can fail but continue on till we succeed. If we do this often enough failure rightly becomes part of the process associated with success, accomplishment, and the intrinsic rewards that accompany achievement. 

  13. Managing failure is an act of judgment.

  14. The management of these two things, success and failure is then a matter of judgment. If you feel that you want to do something, you should ask yourself, "Will I be able to get up and try again if I fail?" If not, you may need to break up what you want to do into smaller units that can more easily be accomplished. If the answer is yes however, then go for it with exhilaration. The whole experience, whether you fail or not, will teach you a great deal.

Remember failure is the path of least persistence.

"Every calamity is a spur and valuable hint. Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss." Ralph Waldo Emmerson

"Great things are done by a series of small things brought together." Vincent Van Gogh

"Nothing fails like success because we don't learn from it. We learn only from failure." Kenneth Boulding

Society and the fear of failure.

Ok, we all fear failure because our competitive societies are currently structured towards winning. We internalize this apprehension when we are young from our parents, from our schools and the media. It is drilled into us. It is therefore difficult to shake off, but to learn effectively, we must do so.

Fear of success as failure to try or to even start.

Not only do we fear to fail, but many of us also fear to succeed. If we are afraid to succeed it leads to staying with what is normal, with what is expected. Some people seem to just huddle in a corner hoping the world will not notice them too much and pass them by. They have their 9 to 5 job and they complain about it, but they do nothing about changing this rut. 

One reason we fear success is because success proclaims to ourselves and others that we are capable enough to accept responsibility. Success not only demonstrates that we have accomplished things, but also that we bear responsible for our own and other's circumstances. The more we succeed the more we have to direct our own way through life. Not only can we no longer look to others for direction, but now others begin to look to us for direction. We must now make decisions, and if we falter we are to blame. We cannot blame somebody else. We become not only responsible for our own failures but often responsible for the failures of others. Success can be a heavy burden, that many can intuit the consequences of, and are thus afraid of.

Success is also feared because we fear loss of support. The more successful we are, the less we can call on others for support. Some people are only too willing to help you when you are down, to listen to your woes, or give you a hand with encouragement. When you are up, you cannot expect such a helping hand or encouragement. Friends are much more likely to help you move to a smaller house than to a bigger one. Success also seems to lead to social failure, where old friendships become difficult to maintain, and new friendships are difficult to build or be sure of. Like children coming of age, success forces those who attain it to leave the nest, and fly unaided. Money, fame and even accomplishment, can promote jealousy and resentment, because people tend to view another's gain as their loss.

The main reason that people fear success is that they are unprepared to deal with it. Success basically tends to lead to the inability of being able to cope with success. Society asks us to enter the race but it does not allow us all to be winners. Society is structured to have few successes and many failures. Those who fail are encouraged by society to envy those who succeed.

The failure of success.

How often have people reached the pinnacle of success only to find that it does not live up to expectations. Many people in all walks of life have difficulty coping with success, especially where this entails large lifestyle changes. Those who embrace creativity generally seem to cope better with success than others. Those who become famous quickly are most at risk. Lottery winners, actors, musicians, comedians and performers of all sorts who suddenly rise to wealth and fame are in the high risk group.

The success of failure.

Remember the important part of success is the feeling of accomplishment the it engenders. This is primarily a motivator. Feelings of accomplishment are what motivate us to risk failure. Success is nothing in itself but simply a demonstration that we have learned something. The function of success is to provide us with the feeling of accomplishment or achievement that is our reward for having learned, changed and sometimes having changed the world. Failure at being successful is just another kind of learning experience that should help us to be better at achieving success, provided we are only willing to try to learn from that experience.

"Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn." Robert Kiyosaki

The entropy spiral.

Lets face it, if we fear success and also fear failure, there is little left that we can do. We have wandered down a blind alley where change and growth are impossible and where learning must be minimal. This promotes the vindictive attitude of people wanting to cut down the tall poppies so that they won't be short by comparison. Such people see success in others as akin to stealing what is rightfully theirs. They also see their own failures as due to others preventing them from having what the world owes them.


Many people however, are well adjusted to failing and certainly are not afraid of success. Such people are willing to embrace change; all they need is the right circumstances to accomplish this. They welcome a little help, but we live in a world where help often equates with sacrifice. If we help someone to win, our culture or society usually determines that we are ensuring our own sacrificial failure. This however is not inevitable. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict asserted that societies can be such, that a win-lose structure is not in evidence. She called such cooperative societies "synergic societies" and they are characterized by the large amount of "synergy" that exists between the members of that society. Synergy as described here is the automatic way in which, what benefits one, benefits others.

What is needed is an effort to change our own society and culture in the direction of being more synergic. Such a synergic society would encourage many successes, and support successes by promoting synergy so that any person's success leads automatically to the success of others, and in no way allows people to see another's success as their loss. After all, this is at base a matter of perception. Generally speaking, we do not see great works of art as attempts to make us look bad and demonstrate how uncreative we are in comparison. Why then should we see somebody winning a contest as making the other contestants look bad. Why is there only one winner? To be a competitor deserves recognition. Are they really losers?


It is a curious thing that in sport, which models the broad themes of society, a game is not interesting if one person or one team trounces the other too easily. The interesting games are the ones that are close. These are games where a non winning contestant plays so well that he makes the opposing person or team deserving of their triumph. If you want to appear great, you are better off promoting your opponent and telling the world how great he is, so if you overcome him, then that greatness is reflected in you. Also, it is not appealing to watch a lopsided game where somebody is kicked when already down. In teams, winning is more facilitated where each member supports what other members are doing, rather than acting individually. This is clearly illustrated in super teams where the best players are put together to form a super team. Such a team can be dysfunctional to such an extent that it often plays worse than a normal good team. In their book "The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes give us the following examples:

"Baseball players admire an infielder who makes extra errors lunging for out-of-reach balls than one who makes fewer errors because he sticks to high-percentage plays.

...Big wins are enjoyed only by those who risk huge losses 'I've missed more than nine thousand shots in my career.' admitted Michael Jordon. 'I've lost almost three hundred games. Twenty six times I've been trusted to to take the winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeeded.'"

Perhaps the idea of synergy in sport is best characterized by the Burmese kick ball game of "Chinlone". In this game the team does not have an opponent and the members of the team seek only to enhance each other's play and keep the ball in the air. This was clearly demonstrated in the fascinating movie "Mystic Ball" by Greg Hamilton.

The more synergic we can make our society, the better that world will be for all that live in it. In such a society everyone's perception of the success of some, is that of providing a better chance for all others. In such a society one person's success or winning would merely provide an inspiration to induce others to win or be successful. It is a choice after all whether we see a person's success as disheartening, because we did not do the best, or as inspirational to encourage us to do better, and as a lesson in how to do it better. To truly learn we must both seek to be successful and be willing to fail.

"Every strike brings me closer to the next home run." Babe Ruth

"The only difference between stumbling blocks and stepping-stones is the way we use them." Denis Waitley quoting ancient folk wisdom.

Playing to win, winning to play.

Many of the world's greatest sports people feel better about performing at the pinnacle of ability than they do about winning. The importance of winning for such people is that, if they win they will be able to play again. After all nobody is allowed to play if they just keep losing. In their book "The Innovation Paradox" Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes say:

"Long after he ended his career as one of basketball's all-time best players, Bill Russell made a startling admission: He found some games so absorbing and so intense that it made no difference to him who won or lost. This usually happened when his Boston Celtics played a team that was challenging them for the NBA championship. ...We assume that success is the pinnacle, failure the pits. They're not, The real pinnacle is when we are so engaged in doing what we are doing that this distinction vanishes. Athletes call it being in the zone."

It's pretty much the same for scientists every time they make some amazing discovery they get more opportunities to do even more interesting research.

"The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more." Dr. Jonas Salk

Successful failure.

You need to become successful at failure. The idea is not to avoid failure but rather to bring yourself to the point where you can fail without fear. A really amazing thing happens if you fail and keep going after you fail, then trying again till you are successful. When this happens, your anticipation of failure becomes part of your anticipation of success. Failure begins to be correctly perceived as part of the way to success. If you can reach this point then all fear of failure will disappear. You will actually come to look forward to failure as part of the process towards a more difficult and satisfying success. It is thus possible to revise our map of reality so that it incorporates failure as part of success. If we can do this our perception of failure becomes the perception of a stepping stone to success. An inventor fails 999 times, and if he succeeds once, he's achieved his goal. He treats his failures simply as practice shots. His glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time he falls.

"Failures to heroic minds are the stepping stones to success." Thomas C. Haliburton

"The only time you don't fail is the last time you try anything -- and it works." William Strong

"What is defeat? Nothing but education. Nothing but the first step to something better." Wendell Phillips

Failure management and realistic expectations.

We can also manage success and failure in yet another way by controlling our expectations in the real world. We can develop some conscious control over what we expect and what we anticipate. With regard to success and failure, it is possible to increase or decrease the strength of expectation or anticipation. In his book "Failing Forward" John C. Maxwell has this to say:

"If you want to take a stroll in your neighborhood, you can reasonably expect to have few, if any, problems. But this is not the case if you intend to climb Mount Everest. It takes time, effort and the ability to overcome setbacks. You have to approach each day with reasonable expectations, and not get your feelings hurt when everything does not turn out perfectly."

To go on such a journey it is necessary to monitor our own expectations of success and failure to determine if they are realistic. This can be something of a paradox. On the one hand we need to lower expectations to the point where success is possible, so that we don't find it non-motivating if we fail. On the other we have to aim high enough so as to accomplish something worthwhile. We need to be able to have expectations that allow us to accomplish something more difficult each time we try. Pessimists often use their poor understanding of harsh realities to lower their sights back to inactivity. But this is not solving the problem. We can be realistic and still reach way beyond what others think is possible. Maxwell continues with a baseball story:

"Something that happened on baseball's opening day in 1954 illustrates the point well. The Milwaukee Braves and the Cincinnati Reds played each other, and a rookie played for each team made his major-league debut during the game. The rookie who played for the Reds hit four doubles and helped his team win with a score of 9-8. The rookie for the Braves went 0 for 5. The Reds player was Jim Greengrass, a name you probably haven't heard. The other guy, who didn't get a hit, might be more familiar to you. His name was Hank Aaron, the player who became the best home run hitter in the history of baseball.

If Aaron's expectations for that first game had been unrealistic, who knows? he might have given up baseball. Surely he wasn't happy about his performance that day, but he didn't think of himself as a failure. He had worked too hard and too long. He wasn't about to give up easily."

  1. If our expectations of success are too high, we continue to try but because the expectations are unrealistic, they have slim chance of success. Maxwell, in "Failing Forward" tells the story about himself and his own unrealistically high expectations when he first became a preacher. He might have given up without help from his father:

    "In the type of church I led, each year the people voted to decide whether to allow the leader to keep his job. And many of the leaders I knew over the years loved to brag about the unanimous affirming votes they received from their people. My expectations were high as I prepared to receive my first unanimous vote. Imagine my surprise when the votes came back 31 yeses 1 no and 1 abstention. I was devastated." He called his father who held a high position in the church. "Dad," he lamented "Somebody actually voted against me and wanted me to leave the church! Should I leave and go to another church?" To his shock he heard laughter on the other end of the phone. "No son stay there," his father chuckled. "That's probably the best vote you'll ever receive."

  2. If our expectations of success are too low they produce insufficient impetus, which can also retard the success process.

  3. Likewise if our anticipation of failure is too extreme, it will discourage motivation which leads to less likelihood of eventual success.

  4. As a final corollary, if our expectations of failure aren't sufficient, they may keep us trying when the chances of success are almost non existent.

"To expect defeat is nine-tenths of defeat itself." Francis Crawford

"Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." Winston Churchhill

"Remember every person who has become successful has simply formed the habit of doing things that failures dislike doing and will not do. You can fail so very often. But you are not a failure until you give up." source unknown.

"Any time you try to win everything, you must be willing to lose everything." Larry Csonka

"The only true failure lies in failure to start." Harold Blake Walker

"A man may fall many times but he won't be a failure until he says someone pushed him." Elmer G. Letterman

Failure is a matter of perception.

Some of the most important findings in science happened when the scientist was looking for something else. Some of the world's greatest inventions happened when the inventors were trying to invent something else. Basically a lot of things came into existence by accidence. Should we say these people were failures or successes? Alexander Graham Bell was trying to invent a hearing aid when he discovered the principle of the telephone. X-rays were also an accidental discovery by Wilhelm Roentgen. The pace maker was also an accidental invention by Wilson Greatbatch. All these people failed, but their genius was in recognizing the potential in what just turned up and not by passing it. In fact all these people were hugely successful.

"No one can cheat you out of ultimate success but yourself." Ralph Waldo Emmerson

Failed but not failures.

One way to facilitate others to deal with failure, is by giving them examples of how successful people failed before they became successful. Here is a short list of people who have failed. If you look you, will find many more.

Henry Ford failed and went broke five times before he finally succeeded. Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was too stupid to learn anything. He tested five thousand different materials while seeking a filament that would make an electric light work. Even then he failed to create a light bulb 200 times before he succeeded. J. R. Simplot the Idaho potato king was driven to the verge of bankruptcy after the second world war. This situation would have finished a lesser man, but he somehow struggled on to become the supplier for McDonalds and much of the fast food industry. Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor for lack of ideas. Walt Disney also went bankrupt several times before he built Disneyland. Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, had some huge failures and made colossal mistakes. His most tragic failure was perhaps his unsuccessful attempts to permanently fix paint for the "The Battle of Anghiari" and "The Last Supper".

"The most important of my discoveries has been suggested to me by my failures." Sir Humphrey Davy a famous chemist.

"Of the 200 light bulbs that didn't work, every failure told me something that I was able to incorporate into the next attempt." Thomas Edison

Reacting to Failure.

There are two positive types of reactions to failure. One is to see that you were wrong in what you did, and that you must try to do something else. The other is that you are right and the rest of the world is wrong, and thus to try again to do what you are doing. These two reactions are tightly bound together usually and it is difficult to separate them. For someone like Edison, both these reactions are true at once. On the one hand, each time he tries to make a light bulb and fails, he learns a way not to do it and does not repeat this again. On the other hand he does not stop trying to make the light bulb because he believes one can be made. He simply has not found how to do it yet.

Chester F. Carlson Inventor of the "Xerox Machine" spent 17 years trying to get various companies interested in his device. Alfred Mosher Butts aggressively marketed "Scrabble" for four years before it caught on. Orville and Wilber Wright worked unsuccessfully for years trying to build a motorized airplane. Johannes Kepler filled 9000 sheets with calculations over nine years before he realized the orbits of planets were elliptical and not circular. After Fred Astaire’s first screen test, the memo from the testing director of MGM, dated 1933, said, “Can’t act! Slightly Bald! Can dance a little!” Astaire kept that memo over the fireplace in his Beverly Hills home. Albert Einstein did not speak until he was four years old and didn’t read until he was seven. His teacher described him as “mentally slow, unsociable and adrift forever in his foolish dreams.” He was expelled and refused admittance to Zurich Polytechnic School. The sculptor Rodin’s father said, “I have an idiot for a son.” Described as the worst pupil in the school, Rodin failed three times to secure admittance to the school of art. His uncle called him uneducable. These people succeeded in the end beyond anybody's wildest expectations.

Some famous people, it may be said, never succeeded in their own lifetime. Vincent Van Gough was a failure as an artist, never having sold a painting in his life. Evariste Galois was a complete failure in life, having achieved neither fame, wealth, nor the recognition of his peers. He is however arguably the greatest mathematician that has ever lived. These people could be said never to have succeeded, but they never stopped trying and later their work made them immortal.

The question is, you have these two possible reactions to failure, so which one do you as an individual chose? How do you find the right path to take? For this, alas, there is no real right answer. Vincent Van Gough knew he was painting great art and continued despite the fact that other people thought he was wasting his life. No one can tell you when to give up or when to continue doing what you are doing. No doubt there were many people who took their books to publisher after publisher and never got them published. A few of them might have succeeded if they had just tried a couple more times, while others had really just produced a dog that could never be published. The thing is, you can do only what you believe in at the time. If others can convince you that it is not worth continuing, then you have to stop. The study of creative people can give but the flimsiest of hints as to which path to follow. These hints warn us only that we should not give up too easily. These hints confirm that even though nobody else believes, if we truly believe ourselves, we should not give up. Also they tell us not to give up because of fear of failure or other fears. It informs us that logical risk assessment can only be applied up to a point. It prompts us to ask, if it is really worth doing. But it advises us to give up only if we no longer believe.

Facilitation of failure recovery.

So what can others do to facilitate fearlessness in the face of failure, and to enable this often feared thing to instead be perceived as an opportunity? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to be found in Carol Dweck's mindsets or self-theories. Dweck's theory concerns the idea that people are propelled by life circumstances in one of two directions. They can be becoming fixed in abilities and in intelligence like flies in amber (with a fixed mindset) or they can be changing incrementally every moment becoming something ever unknown and unknowable (with a growth mindset).

Carol Dweck had the following to say about failure in her book "Self-theories":

"For us it was as though a lightbulb went on. We had thought that you coped with failure or you didn't cope with failure. We didn't think of failure as a thing to embrace with relish. These students were teaching us what true mastery-oriented reactions were."

As related elsewhere, only a growth mindset can provide the confidence in ones capacity to learn that can protect one from failure. How is this achieved? It is achieved in three main ways.

  1. It is achieved by example of good role models.

  2. It is achieved by how we praise those we wish to strengthen.

  3. It is achieved by how we criticize those we wish to strengthen.

  4. It is achieved by attribution retraining.

1 Role models.

Facilitators have to become good role models for children by setting a good example, of being unflinching, and even excited by the challenge of failure.  This is mostly about fostering a growth mindset yourself. Facilitators have to believe that their potential, the one with which they are genetically endowed, is unknowable, and that therefore they may, with sufficient hard work, be able to learn how to do anything. This self belief will be exposed to children through what they do, how they do it and especially what they say.

What facilitators say to children, what they say to themselves in the presence of children, and what they say to others in the presence of children, are all vital in promoting the fearlessness, and excitement at the opportunity to learn, that failure presents. Here are the sort of things you should be saying: "Accomplishment isn't meant to be easy", "Mistakes are stepping stones to success", "A good challenge makes work worthwhile", "Success is never permanent, and failure is never final", "There is no failure. Only feedback.", "Success is 99 percent failure."

In a households where such comments are often heard and so repeated, children are being nurtured to have a growth mindset and be so confident of their ability to learn to do anything that they can push past any failure.

2 Praise.

The kind of praise that immunizes children against fear of failure, and promotes at the possibility of learning from failure is praise of effort. It is praise of hard work. It is praise of persistence. It is praise of improvement. It is praise of the strategies they have used. It is never praise of the children themselves. In order to build a growth mindset one should avoid even praising the work of children. Instead praise the effort they have put in, praise the hard work they have put in, praise how they have persisted till they understood something or solved a problem, praise the strategies they have used to do it. Perhaps most importantly praise children for having persisted and risen out of failure to try again.

3 Criticism.

Criticism functions much the same way. There is a kind of criticism that also immunizes children against fear of failure and promotes the possibility of learning from failure. This is criticism of effort, criticism of the time put in, criticism of how hard one has tried, criticism of how long and hard one has persisted, and criticism of the amount and variety of strategies one has applied. On the other hand in order to avoid building a fixed mindset one should endeavor not to criticize a child personally. Likewise one should try not to criticize the child's work other that to give feedback as to what is being done badly or incorrectly and how to improve it. Good criticism that fosters a growth mindset is that which tells the truth about how good or bad the work is, but also provides indications of how it can be improved. This kind of criticism works well when mixed with effortful praise as suggested above.

4 Attribution retraining.

This is how Carol Dweck and her team were able to intervene in the lives of a number of grade school students who she had found to have an extremely averse response to failure and move the to have a more positive and growth mindset response to failure. She performed an experiment where the failure adverse students were divided into two randomly generated groups where one group was made confident by carefully allowing them to succeed while the other group was trained to interpret their failures as stepping stones to success. Carol Dweck explains:

"One group received training that largely consisted of success. We did this precisely to test the idea that giving students a history of success in the situation might build their expectation of success and allow them to cope better with any failure they might encounter. So in each session they received 15 success trials on which they completed new sets of math problems within the allotted time. The time limit always posed something of a challenge, so that the task would remain interesting and the success would feel meaningful. The students seemed delighted with the experience.

The other group received training in how to interpret their failures. This was called 'attribution retraining' because we were teaching a new attribution or explanation for failure. For them 2 or 3 of the 15 trials in each session were failure trials. On these trials, students failed to finish the required number of problems within the time limit. They were stopped and shown how many problems they had needed in order to succeed on that trial, and told: 'You needed [say] six, you only got five. That means you should have tried harder.'

Their failure was now interpreted in terms of their effort rather than their ability. These were students that strongly blamed their ability when they failed, and we were teaching them to focus on effort instead.

In order to make the this message credible I made sure that the students fell short by only one or two problems and I made sure that by the end of the session they had reached the highest we said they needed. (Its critical that students not feel you are not just paying lip service to effort. A pat message to try harder will be tuned out very quickly.)"

Carol and her team checked the effects of the training in the middle of the 15 trials and at the end of the 15 trials. She did this by asking each group to tackle a sheet of very hard problems they were bound to fail at. Here is her assessment of of the study:

"By the end of training the group that got the success training still showed no improvement. In fact, some of them looked like they were more affected by the failure than they had been at the beginning...

In contrast, the group that got the attribution training improved greatly, to the point where several of them showed better performance after failure than they they showed before it - just like the mastery-oriented students, some of the students in this group spontaneously gave themselves instructions to try harder during the failure trials.

What was perhaps even more fascinating was that these students' teachers didn't know which students had received which training, and they wished they could give me favorable reports on all the students we worked with. However they singled out for special comment those students who wer given the new meaning for failure.

They told me that some of these students, who had often been given less work than their classmates so they wouldn't feel overwhelmed, were now requesting more work. They also told me that the students were persisting more appropriately, as well as asking appropriately for help when they needed it instead of just giving up."

It was clear that for the attribution retraining group not only had the aversion to failure disappeared but that these children has at least temporarily if not permanently shifted from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. As to the other group Dweck has the following to say:

"When students hold an entity theory, [fixed mindset] confidence and success are not enough. Confidence and success do not seem to breed a desire for challenge or the needed fortification against failure."

Autonomy and failure.

Deci and Ryan.

Some answers are also to be found in Deci and Ryan's Self-determination theory. We must be careful not to help children too much. Children need to learn that they can learn how to do things themselves. It is essential that we stop children from giving up easily before they have made their mightiest effort. Facilitators can encourage learners to try again. Facilitators can tell children they can do it when they make sufficient effort, if they think the children can, or help them break it down into smaller units if they think children can not. The gentlest of nudges is usually enough.

Pushing and letting try.

Children should not be pushed or their fear of failure may be increased. If we are careful, we can help children to try and try again, be it walking, be it talking, or what ever they are trying to do. However, it may well be that very young learners do not need this encouragement, as they are well motivated to do it with little help.

Suppressing our own fears.

One true way we can help, is simply to not alert children to our fears of their lack of ability, intelligence or potential. We should be aware that by trying to encourage them or help children to try again after failing, we can try too hard and inadvertently do just the opposite, by projecting our own fears. A parent's worst fear is that their child will not be normal or unable to do things on time or quickly enough. This can increase the child's anxiety rather than lessen it, or even unintentionally create a neurotic fear in the child, where there was previously only fearlessness. Again it turns out that learning is all about confidence; confidence we can learn to do it ourselves in the face of failure, confidence we can absorb it ourselves in the face of failure, confidence to push past failure to be successful ourselves, and confidence to fail without fear ourselves.

Redefining failure.

For facilitators the important thing is a matter of redefining the experience of failure as a learning experience. Facilitators who are able to help learners experience failure in this positive light can greatly enhance the learners ability to learn. Many of the new companies especially in the computer industry have found many new ways of letting their employees know that failure is okay. Not only are they not chastised for failing, but sometimes they are chastised for not failing enough. In their book "The Innovation Paradox" Farson and Keyes tell the following story:

"While part of the research and development team at Apple, David Levy was reprimanded by his boss for not making enough mistakes. Levy's boss said he wanted no less than 80 percent failure in ventures he attempted. Only then would he know that Levy was actually trying anything new. Levy took the advice to heart. Now a freelance inventor, he lives by the credo that 'If I'm not failing enough, I'm not doing my job.'"

"Remember: it only takes one sound idea to achieve success." Nigel Risner

"Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits." Robert Louis Stevenson

In the end facilitators whether they be parents, teachers or business managers can do most for those in their charge by encouraging a growth mindset. In this way they can enable those around them to see the world and themselves as being malleable, subject to change and improvement through effort.

"In great attempts it is glorious even to fail." Cassius Longinus

"We are all failures--at least, all the best of us are." James M. Barrie

"All honor to him who shall win the prize.
The world has cried for a thousand years.
But to him who tries and fails and dies,
I give great honor and glory and tears."

Poet Joaquin Miller

Life long learning and failure.

Failure is the most important tool in learning. If you cannot fail you cannot learn. If you are afraid to make mistakes and to fail, you will try to make no mistakes and to never fail. When you do this learning becomes impossible. If you can embrace mistakes and failure as part of the learning process, this fear will either evaporate or be transformed into excitement. Learning thus becomes the enjoyable process it should be, and our desire to indulge in it will only intensify with time. As our desire to learn thus intensifies as we get older, we continue to learn more and more. We become life long learners.

Needs Interest Method Reality Keys How to Help Creative Genius Future What is Wrong Theories Plus
How the World Works Confidence Fragile Interest Criticism Teach to Learn Intellectual Contagion Starting Place
Making Choices Learn to Learn Learn the Future Evaluation