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The Best Way to Fail

The Best Way to Fail

Poet Robert Browning famously wrote that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”. Essentially, this means that the only way to develop and improve is to try and achieve things that may appear too difficult – and failure is an integral part of this.

Think back on the last time you experienced failure – afterwards, did you reflect on how it made you feel (i.e. your emotions) or on what your thoughts were? And did you think that was the most helpful way for you to overcome that failure? Researchers recently have been exploring if there is indeed a best way to fail.

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How Important Is Failure?

Recently, researchers looked at the role that experiencing failure can have on one’s future performance (and indeed career success). To test this, they tracked early career scientists applying for national grants. They compared those who had failed to win a grant by a small margin (labelled ‘near-misses’) compared to those who had just obtained the required threshold (labelled ‘near wins’).

The researchers found that for 10% of these early career scientists, experiencing a near-miss was too demotivating and led to them not applying again in the future.  However, when comparing all the ‘near-misses’ vs all the ‘near-wins’ in the long-term, they found that the ‘near-misses’ performed significantly better. The researchers attributed this partly to the motivating effect that early career setbacks can have, stating that their “findings were consistent with the concept that ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’”.

Furthermore, they conclude by stating that “science is often viewed as a setting where early success begets future success, our findings unveil an intimate yet previously unknown relationship where early-career setback can become a marker for future improvement”.


How Can Students Fail Better?

This study suggesting that reflecting on why we failed and how we responded can be helpful for students in developing their resilience. Other previous research also indicates additional strategies to use in schools. Other ways to help students fail better include:

Knowing the Value of Failure

Failing is part of everyday life, and it is sometimes unavoidable. No matter how good you are at something, you will always experience some setbacks and failures – but that can be a good thing. Failure has many known benefits – it can:

  • Increase your motivation to succeed.
  • Help you figure out what to do better or differently from now on.
  • Develop your compassion and empathy.
  • Increase your resilience and determination.
  • Prompt you to ask for help and feedback.
  • Make the reward even greater once you succeed.

Knowing that failure has the potential to improve resilience, aid learning and enhance motivation can help you sweeten the bitter taste that it sometimes leaves.

Asking Yourself Good Questions

So, if failure is inevitable at some stage, then those who learn to fail better have a significant competitive advantage. This can be done by having a calm and consistent debrief after the event. To do this, questions such as ‘Was I trying something new?’, ‘What have I learnt?’ and ‘What would I do differently next time?’ are good starting points. This can help soften the blow of failure and figure out action points for the next attempt.

Not Failing Before You Have Even Begun

For many people, the fear of failure is worse than the actual failure itself. Worries and worst-case scenarios about being unsuccessful, what that might mean for your future or how embarrassing it would be, are known to trigger a reduction in performance. To overcome this:

  • Address the issue – don’t ignore it until it goes away or, more likely, gets worse.
  • Question your fears and ask yourself if the worst-case scenario is really plausible.
  • Focus on the present moment and what you can control.
  • Make sure your preparation has been thorough.
  • Don’t bottle it up and ensure you know who to go to for help or advice if needed.

Embrace the grey – one failure does not decide your overall success, so judge yourself on your attitude, effort and what you’ve learnt.


Final Thought

Failure should never be the aim. It shouldn’t be glamourized into something it’s not. However, it will most likely happen at some stage, because it is an integral part of learning – this means that we have a duty to teach students how to fail better. How well they manage their lows will almost certainly end up deciding how many highs they have. Giving them time and space to reflect on how that failure made them feel promises to be one encouraging strategy.

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