Failure as a Learning Tool: 0/10

This week we are delighted to have a guest post from Fiona Quigley (@FionaQuigs).

Thomas Edison, famously said:

“I have not failed 1,000 times.  I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.”

Abraham Lincoln, Louis Pasteur, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney and JK Rowling, to name but a few, are as famous for their failures as their successes.

If you talk to successful people, most will tell you that they “failed” many times.  History is laden with spectacular failures, stories of triumph over adversity and succeeding against the odds.  Human nature draws us to these stories.  Seeing others’ vulnerabilities and the hurdles they have overcome somehow helps to inspire us.

But what of the 21st century education and business environment – does failure still play an important role in our learning?  Does our perception of failure and its value need a re-think?  If failure is such an important part of achieving success, how can we use it better to learn?

One of the challenges with using failure as a learning tool is the meritocracy that we live in;  we are judged on our individual achievements.  From an early age, we are taught that grades matter.  Being top of the class, getting into the best schools and graduating with honours drives how we learn through the formal school system.

A recent French research study discovered that, by telling 11-year-olds that the puzzles they were working on were difficult and that they needed to practise, this improved their success rate.  The intervention of telling the students that learning is difficult, mistakes are common and practice is important, was found to improve their working memory.

Harold Jarche, in a blog entitled “Three Principles for Net Work”, speaks of the changing nature of work and our increasingly complex business environment.  Harold states that, due to the complex nature of business, “failure needs to be tolerated”.  Harold’s tagline for his blog “Life in perpetual Beta” makes a lot of sense.

The changing nature of business is also reflected in organisational structure changes.  Over the last few years, many organisations have adopted a matrix or network organisation structure, where ambiguous roles and uncertainty is part of everyday life.  In these types of environments, people may have two or more managers; work in physical teams and virtual teams and often have to redefine their roles on an on-going basis.

The skills of the 21st century worker are about negotiation, influence, collaboration and, often, compromise.  We don’t live in the black and white world that many of us were educated in as school children.

The idea of looking at failures and learning from them is worth exploring.  Conferences such as TED ( and TheFailCon ( encourage people to be open and honest about their ideas, struggles and successes.  Shinning light on failure actually changes it into a feedback process.

It is also worth looking at the definition of failure.  We all make mistakes, but when does making a mistake result in failure?  Is it when we make the same mistake over and over without learning from it?

Human psychology is complex and there are many reasons why we might repeat a pattern of behaviour that is less than positive.  Paradoxically, perfectionism is a trait that can lead to a fear of failure which, in turn, can result in poor performance.  People can get so stressed by the thought of getting it wrong, that they may never start, procrastinate, or do the task half-heartedly because they “know” they will get it wrong.

Failure is tied up with judgement.  When you call yourself a failure, you are essentially judging yourself.  The word failure closes down thinking and leaves little room for overcoming problems and learning from them.  If you add our increasingly complex and ambiguous business environment to the mix, then perhaps the world we operate in may not be as ready to tolerate and benefit from failure as much as we need.

So it seems that our ability to learn can be significantly impacted by both our attitude to success and failure.  How can we embrace failure and integrate it into our learning processes?

To read more about failure as a learning tool:

Reducing Academic Pressure May Help Children to Succeed

Strategies for Learning From Failure – Harvard Business Review

Interpreting Successes and Failures: The Influence of Perfectionism on Perspective

Harold Jarche – Three Principles for Net Work Blog

Festival of Errors

Famous Failures

Fiona is a Freelance Instructional Designer and Trainer based in Belfast, Northern Ireland who has been working in the learning and development area for 15 years.  You can contact Fiona via her blog  or through following her on Twitter @FionaQuigs where she is an active contributor.

1 thought on “Failure as a Learning Tool: 0/10

  1. Pingback: Reframing Failure for Learning | Online College Tips – Online Colleges

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