Failure is healthy, but pressure to succeed makes it costly to mess up

The idea of mistakes being intrinsic to success has become an educational mantra – but for many students and academics, messing up is not an option

January 31, 2019
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What is your biggest weakness? If you are ever asked the classic job interview question, you know what to do: give the same answer as every other candidate, a variation of “I’m a perfectionist”.

A silly question deserves a silly answer, which is why I had a sneaking admiration for UK prime minister Theresa May when she was asked on daytime TV to reveal the naughtiest thing that she had ever done, and replied that as a child she had once run through a field of wheat.

So it was with a little trepidation that, for our cover story this week, we asked six scholars to own up to the biggest mistake of their careers. How deep would they delve into their closets? Would they reveal dark tales of dastardly deeds, or would they tell us about the time that they made the mistake of setting their sights just too high as a young postdoc and, to their surprise, got a paper published in Nature – a feat that, distressingly, they have never quite managed to top?

Well, it is fair to say that none own up to any mortal scholarly sins, but their stories do cast light on the wrong turns and pratfalls that everyone suffers from time to time, and the ways in which mistakes can often become valuable lessons and professional turning points.

This idea of failure being intrinsic to success has become a mantra in education, with good reason.

But as true as the truism may be, it is also worth reflecting on the extent to which higher education, and the environment in which it exists, is really supportive of this “fail to succeed” mentality.

Take students: around the world, and particularly in countries such as the US and UK with their marketised university systems that are built on high levels of debt for young learners, universities are dealing with mental ill health approaching crisis levels.

Without wanting to oversimplify, a fear of failure is surely one of the contributing factors, with such influences as social media, overbearing parents, and the huge financial commitments (coupled with uncertain future career prospects) all feeding the unhealthy pursuit of perfection. Recently, I was talking to a very senior higher education leader with experience in both the UK and US, who talked despairingly about the weight of expectation that middle-class parents in particular put on their children. Whereas once they would buy things, they now put their money into their child’s education, and expect returns, he said. The flip side, for those without parents putting large sums of money into their education, would be levels of student debt, and a similar expectation – perhaps need – of a good return on the investment. Such pressures do not sit easily with the idea that they should be embracing failure.

In the US, there are examples of universities that have explicitly addressed this, with programmes designed to help students cope with the idea that they might sometimes fall short or make mistakes.

One such programme, profiled by The New York Times, is at Smith College in Massachusetts, where a module called “Failing Well” tries to teach that “failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature”.

As the faculty member in charge explains: “For many of our students…failure can be an unfamiliar experience. So when it happens, it can be crippling.” The NYT notes that faculty at Harvard and Stanford have come up with a term for this predicament: being “failure-deprived”.

As for academics, the idea that the road to success is paved with failure is equally appealing on an abstract level. What is the scientific process, after all, but experimentation in which failure is just as vital to progress as success?

But how tolerant is the profession of failure? Not very for those on short-term, insecure contracts, or those told that their continued employment depends on securing barrels full of funding or a prescribed number of papers in leading journals by a hard and fast deadline.

Even science itself is becoming failure-deprived, with the growing focus of funders on preordained impact, rather than truly blue-sky research that may lead to the moon or may go nowhere.

Failure, the aphorism goes, is essential. It is healthy. It is the way to success. For too many in higher education, it may also be a luxury that they are unable to embrace.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: A lot at stake in failure

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