Why We Need to Learn to Fail Better

Amy Edmondson is professor of leadership and management at Harvard University. Right Kind of Wrong will be published by Cornerstone on 7 September 2023.

You’ve probably heard the cheerful quotes: Winston Churchill, with his “success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”, or CS Lewis, who wrote “failures are finger posts on the road to achievement”. What about Billie Jean King, who enthused “losing a tennis match isn’t failure, it’s research”? Maybe you find yourself thinking, “Sure. Easy to say when you’re famous and successful.”

For most people, failure is pretty simple: it’s bad, even shameful. Life is going well if you’re not experiencing failures, and we think that avoiding failure is obviously the right goal. We worry about what it says about us when we get something wrong (we’re not good enough!). The social stigma of failure exacerbates that spontaneous reaction.

The instinct is so strong that we can find ourselves upset about the smallest missteps – the comment that falls flat in a meeting, the stumble on an uneven sidewalk that has us furtively glancing around to see if anyone noticed. Add to these timeless anxieties the never-ending chore of self-presentation in our age of ubiquitous social media. Countless studies find today’s teens obsessed with putting forward a sanitized version of their lives, endlessly checking for “likes”, and suffering from comparisons and slights, real or perceived.

And it’s not just the kids. Whether related to our professional accomplishment, attractiveness, or social life, keeping up appearances can feel as necessary as breathing to many adults.

Rationally, we may understand that failure is an unavoidable part of life, a source of learning, and even a requirement for progress in science and technology, yet emotionally and practically, it’s hard to experience it that way.

But what if we could learn to habitually reframe failure as a source of discovery and personal development? What if we could face problems and setbacks with honesty, determination and a healthy sense of realism? What if failure, as a token of our shared humanity, provided us with feelings of inclusion, not ostracism?

In our lives, and in our organizations, most of us would benefit from experiencing more failures, not fewer

This is exactly what people like me, who study this kind of thing, argue is the right approach. We’ve questioned and pushed back against habitual ways of thinking about failure for quite some time now – even to the extent of advocating for increasing the frequency of failures in projects and workplaces around the world. You read that correctly. In our lives, and in our organizations, most of us would benefit from experiencing more failures, not fewer.

This potentially provocative statement applies only when those failures are the right kind of wrong, though. Plenty of failures should (and can) be prevented. When a patient goes into the operating theatre, it’s right that the surgeon triple check which knee is designated for surgery before making the first cut. When you’re baking a cake, it’s important to follow the quantities set out in the recipe. Best practices like these play a major role in preventing failure; however, they’re only available in well-understood contexts.

What about the things we do – such as developing a new cancer drug or finding a life partner – that don’t come with an instruction manual? To make progress in untrodden territory, you have no choice but to experiment, and experiments always bring the risk of failure. But these failures, specifically new failures in new territory, bring useful information, so they’re valuable. (Sure, they’re still disappointing, but they’re necessary.) I call these “intelligent failures”.

Intelligent failures are to be welcomed, because they point us forward towards eventual success. They shut down one path and force us to seek another. The category encompasses wildly different phenomena, ranging from, say, a tedious blind date to the failed clinical trial of a promising new treatment. People who design clinical trials minimize the risks as much as possible. But there is no way to ensure it all works out before the trial is launched. The same can be said of that blind date.

Many of today’s medical miracles – such as open-heart surgery to repair diseased vessels and valves – were once the impossible dreams of pioneers. Without their willingness to tolerate and learn from intelligent failures along the way, most of the life-saving advances we now take for granted would not exist. As cardiologist Dr James Forrester wrote: “In medicine, we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.” But the truth of Forrester’s statement does little on its own to make it easy for the rest of us to navigate failure’s painful side effects.

Fortunately, failing well can be learned. We can replace fear and shame with curiosity and growth. To facilitate this shift, it helps to recognize the human tendency to play in order not to lose, which holds us back from new challenges – and choose instead to play to win. Playing to win comes with the risk of failing, but it also brings rewarding experiences and novel accomplishments.

I’m not advocating that we embrace stupid mistakes or shrug our shoulders at preventable accidents. Failing well is about increasing the frequency of intelligent failure where the upside more than compensates for the downside. Take the blind date that falls short. Perhaps a friend, for reasons you both thought sensible at the time, thought you’d like each other. You agreed to meet for a coffee, only to discover that your friend was wrong. Was the failed date a waste? No, it was research, with minimal risk and definitive results.

Fear too often inhibits us from taking the smart risks that are essential to our discovery – of friends, spouses, hobbies and career moves alike. Embracing failure becomes intellectually and emotionally feasible once you understand the need to limit it to right-sized, thoughtful, goal- driven experiments in new territory. This is what inventors, scientists, chefs and entrepreneurs do for a living. But the rest of us can do it too, to live fuller, more adventurous lives.