In Difficult Topics/ Risk-Taking

Failure – It’s Good for You

The real question is whether you dare to do the things that are necessary in order to be great.  Are you willing to be different, and are you willing to be wrong?  In order to have a chance at great results, you have to be open to being both” (Howard Marks, Chairman of Oaktree Capital, 2014)

According to Marks, if you are scared of failure, you will have average results at best. Marks was talking about investing, but the premise still stands: you have to be willing to be wrong in order succeed academically too. You have to be okay to make mistakes and laugh at yourself or you will never learn new things or grow. Marks continues “Show me a guy who’s afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy you can beat every time” (2014). Everyone looks silly when they are learning something new. A simple example – if babies were afraid to look silly trying to walk, we would all still be crawling. If you are afraid to look silly, it is unlikely you will become the best. We are not going for average results when we teach or raise children. We want them to outperform and to be the best. Failure is key to being the best.

Action item: to show your learner it is okay to look silly, be silly yourself! Wear a clown nose. Ask your child to teach you how to do something that they do well (for me, this would be video games). Do not be afraid to let them see you struggle – actually, it is better if you struggle and keep trying.

According to Marks, the fear of looking bad often ensures failure (2014). It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Therefore, if you are not willing to look bad, it will be difficult to succeed when presented with challenging, unusual tasks. The world is full of arduous and unique problems to solve. We are trying to raise problem solvers who can tackle those issues. Therefore, we need risk takers willing to make mistakes.

Failure develops resilience. “Resilience, the ability to overcome obstacles, that’s what matters most” (Suzanne McKechnie Klahr, Founder of Build, 2015).

Resilience is education’s hot new term and educators across the nation are trying to figure out just how to help their students develop it. It is the ability to bounce back after making mistakes, to persevere despite setbacks, to experience failure and not give up. Resilience is hard. It is hard to be a kid and to hear, “You are so brilliant/smart/great/wonderful” and then try something difficult and not be great at it immediately (or rather, to fail after the first try). It can be embarrassing and feel like a blow to a kid’s self-perception and feelings of worth (Covington, 1984). Therefore kids often do not want to talk about their failures. And if they do talk about it, they give the “I’m just not good at math” excuse. It creates what Carol Dweck calls a “Fixed Mindset,” where if you are not good at it already, you do not think you will ever be good at it, so you stop trying to learn. And there is the main problem. What is the point of going to school if you do not think you can learn and so you tune out the teachers while you are there?

So how do you learn to be resilient? You need to learn that it is actually okay to fail – in fact, that there is a benefit from failing. Failure is a part of learning and growing. That you failed is not really a big deal, but how you respond to that failure and what you learn from it is what actually matters.

So, to help teach your learners some resilience, here are some tips (though this list is nowhere near an exhaustive one):

  • Tell your learners that it is okay to fail and reminder them of that fact.
  • Point out and reflect on the benefits and uses of their strengths. Make sure they know that their strengths outweigh any shortcomings.
  • Set and communicate high expectations.
  • Focus on and reward effort over natural ability. 
  • Provide unconditional love and support, while maintaining clear and consistent rules and boundaries (a common – and good – general parenting tip).
  • When your learner does fail, make sure you say that it is okay, that is a good learning opportunity, and help them to practice ‘self-compassion‘. Then ask what she is going to do about it. Encourage taking action.
  • Help visualize the plan for moving forward. Help coach your learner through it. Help develop a clear way to reach the goal, but do not do it all for him. He needs to learn how to do it for himself.
  • If your learner is stuck, ask her to talk through the part that is getting her stuck. If she could get past that one part, what would she do next? (I specifically remember having trouble with Chemistry homework. By writing down exactly where I was having difficulty answering the question and saying what I would like to do in order to answer the question properly and why, I received partial credit).
  • After a failure, your learners need a positive experience, so help them achieve a small win. That way they will have the energy and positive outlook necessary to keep going.
  • Create a “risk-free”, safe environment, where mistakes are learning opportunities that are viewed in a positive light by authority figures. 

My favorite family’s reaction to a failure comes from Meet the Robinsons and illustrates this last point perfectly:

Failure is good for you. It helps you learn what you were doing wrong. And failing when the stakes are not that high helps you build the resilience you need to keep going when they are.

Additional References:

DeWitt, P. (2012). The benefits of failure. Education Week. Finding Common Ground. <>

DuHigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit. Random House Publishing.

O’Brien, K. (2014). Teaching students to embrace mistakes. Edutopia. <>

Zakrzewski, V (2013). How to help kids overcome fear of failure. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. 


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