The Benefits of Failure: Why the correct answer is not always the best answer.

Failure, it is a word associated with such negative connotations, it is often linked with fear and anxiety. This is such a waste as failure has unlimited potential to help us grow. Through failure and making mistakes we can discover novel and creative ideas. How many things that we take for granted would not exist if it were not for ‘failure?’ Take the light bulb for example, invented by Thomas Edison, whose famous quote “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work” illustrates the power of failure beautifully.

Through failure, novel ways of thinking are pursued and accepting failure as part of the road to discovery increases a person’s resilience. They do not take failure personally as a reflection of themselves, but rather a reflection of the process they have tried. When things do not go according to plan, they are better able to bounce back and try an alternative way of doing things.

I am increasingly concerned about students’ desire to know the ‘right’ answer. This often comes from a fear of failure, of failing in sight of their peers, their parents, themselves. The search for the ‘right’ answer suggests knowledge is a fixed end point  and rather than enjoy the journey of discovery, students sometimes appear to be in a hurry to reach their destination.

This is such a waste, if the destination is already known what new things will discovered? Will there be a new equivalent to the human genome project or a new change in technology such as the ipad? What medical advances will be made? What innovative community initiatives will be implemented if people are afraid of failure? Failure is a friend that should be embraced. It tells us a lot about what does work and what doesn’t. It allows us to understand the different conditions in which something will work and when it won’t work, as failure is not always an absolute.

What can we do to reduce the fear of failure? Carol Dweck argues that when giving feedback teachers should use process focused praise such as ‘you’re working really hard on that’ as opposed to person focused praise such as ‘you’re really smart.’ Parents and other role models can also use this approach so that the child does not associate their sense of self; their self-esteem, their self-confidence with success and failure.

Failure should be valued so that we do not just rehash old answers, but instead enjoy new and innovative ways of doings things.
Kamins, M. L., & Dweck, C. S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35, 835–847.

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