By Mathew Syed
If we wish to fulfil our potential as individuals and organisations, we must redefine failure. At the level of the brain, the individual, the organisation and the system, failure is a means – sometimes the only means – of learning, progressing and becoming more creative. This is a hallmark of science, where errors point to how theories can be reformed; of sport, where practice could be defined as the willingness to clock up well-calibrated mistakes; of aviation, where every accident is harnessed as a means of driving system safety.
Errors have many different meanings, and call for different types of response depending on context, but in all of their guises they represent invaluable aids with the potential to help us learn. Can so much turn on the basis of a reinterpretation of error? Can a new approach to success emerge by flipping the way we think about failure?
When we see failure in a new light, success becomes a new and exhilarating concept. Competence is no longer a static phenomenon, something reserved for great people and organisations on the basis of fixed superiority. Rather, it is seen as dynamic in nature: something that grows as we strive to push back the frontiers of our knowledge.
We are motivated not to boast about what we currently know, and to get defensive when people point to gaps in our knowledge. Rather, we look in wonder at the infinite space beyond the boundaries of what we currently understand, and dare to step into that unbounded terrain, discovering new problems as we find new solutions, as great scientists do. As the philosopher Karl Popper put it:
It is part of the greatness and beauty of science that we can learn through our own critical investigations that the world is utterly different from what we ever imagined – until our imagination was fired by the refutation of our earlier theories.
Many progressive institutions have attempted to inspire precisely this kind of redefinition of failure. James Dyson spends much of his life working to reform educational culture. He wants students to be equipped with a new way of thinking about the world. He rails against the prevailing conception of education as about exam perfection, about avoiding mistakes. He worries that this leads to intellectual stagnation. The Dyson Foundation works, above all, to de-stigmatise failure. He wants youngsters to experiment, to try new things, to take risks.
Innovative head teachers are engaged in precisely the same terrain. Heather Hanbury, the former headmistress of Wimbledon High School in south-west London, for example, created an annual event for her students called ‘failure week’. She was aware that her students were performing well in exams, but she also realised that many were struggling with non-academic challenges, and not reaching their creative potential, particularly outside the classroom. For one week she created workshops and assemblies where failure was celebrated. She asked parents and tutors and other role models to talk about how they had failed, and what they had learned. She showed YouTube clips of famous people practising: i.e. learning from their own mistakes. She told students about the journeys taken by the likes of David Beckham and James Dyson so they could have a more authentic understanding of how success really happens.
Hanbury has said:
You’re not born with fear of failure, it’s not an instinct, it’s something that grows and develops in you as you get older. Very young children have no fear of failure at all. They have great fun trying new things and learning very fast. Our focus here is on failing well, on being good at failure. What I mean by this is taking the risk and then learning from it if it doesn’t work. There’s no point in failing and then dealing with it by pretending it didn’t happen, or blaming someone else. That would be a wasted opportunity to learn more about yourself and perhaps to identify gaps in your skills, experiences or qualifications. Once you’ve identified the learning you can then take action to make a difference.
Other organisations have undertaken similar projects of redefinition. W. Leigh Thompson, the chief scientific officer at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, initiated ‘failure parties’ in the 1990s to celebrate excellent scientific work that nevertheless resulted in failure. It was about de-stigmatising failure and liberating staff from the twin dangers of blame and cognitive dissonance.
But can these kinds of interventions have real effects? Do they really change behaviour and boost performance and adaptation? Consider an experiment involving a group of schoolchildren who had shown difficulty in dealing with failure. In that respect they were like many of us. Half of these students were then given a course where they experienced consistent success. The questions posed during these sessions were easy and the students were delighted to ace them. They began to develop intellectual self-confidence, as you would expect.
The second group were not given successes, but training in how to reinterpret their failures. They were sometimes given problems that they couldn’t solve, but they were also taught to think that they could improve if they expended effort. The failures were positioned not as indications of their lack of intelligence, but as opportunities to improve their reasoning and understanding.
At the end of these training courses, the two groups were tested on a difficult problem. Those who had experienced consistent success were as demoralised by failing to solve this problem as they had been before the training. They were so sensitive to failure that their performance declined and it took many days for them to recover. Some were even more afraid of challenges and didn’t want to take risks.
The group that had been taught to reinterpret failure were quite different. They significantly improved in their ability to deal with the challenging task. Many actually demonstrated superior performance after failure and when they went back to class began asking their teachers for more challenging work. Far from ducking out of situations where they might fail, they embraced them.
This hints at one of the great paradoxes about school and life. Often it is those who are the most successful who are also the most vulnerable. They have won so many plaudits, been praised so lavishly for their flawless performances, that they haven’t learned to deal with the setbacks that confront us all. This has been found to be particularly true of young girls. Female students who go through primary school getting consistently high grades, and who appear to their teachers as highly capable, are often the most devastated by failure.
In one famous experiment a group of schoolgirls were measured for their IQ and then given a task that began with a really challenging section. You might have expected the girls with the higher IQs to perform better on the test. In fact, the results were the other way around. The high IQ girls, who had always succeeded in life, were so flustered by the initial struggle that they became ‘helpless’. They hardly bothered with the later problems on the test. The relationship between IQ and outcome was actually negative.
And this is why ‘failure week’ at Wimbledon High School was such an enlightened idea. Heather Hanbury was trying to give her high-achieving students a lesson that would help them not merely at school or university but in later life. She was taking them outside their comfort zone and helping them to develop the psychological tools that are so vital in the real world. ‘Our pupils are hugely successful in their exams, but they can overreact when things go wrong,’ she said. ‘We want them to be courageous. It sounds paradoxical, but we dare them to fail.’
Columnist for The Times and bestselling author of Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, Matthew Syed argues that the key to success is a positive attitude to failure. Order Black Box Thinking on Amazon now.