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Failure: the greatest teacher of all?

Monday 25 February 2019

The following is adapted from Mrs Cameron's Chapel address of Monday 25 February.

Fear of failure is one of the most frequent subjects I talk about with parents and other head teachers. It’s a subject that preoccupies virtually all successful people. I read recently that most CEOs say they would be loath to invest in someone, either through funding or offering them a job, if that person hadn’t personally experienced failure before.

Failure is fundamental to our growth. If we can learn from what went wrong and why, we know what to avoid or alter in the future to avoid a repeat mistake. Or as Bill Gates once put it: “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Of course, failure is no fun when you are living through it, and it’s often months or years before we can look back at it and recognize it for the great teacher it is.

It's hard to think about Oprah Winfrey failing at anything, considering what she has achieved to date. However, Winfrey was actually fired from her job as a television anchor in Baltimore for "getting too emotionally invested in her stories." She learned from the setback to follow her heart. In her 2013 Harvard commencement speech, she told graduates "There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction." 

Alicia Keys is an accomplished singer and songwriter, but her Songs In A Minor album was originally rejected by her record label, Columbia Records. She ended up getting out of the contract and signed with Clive Davis's label where she was able to release the album. Songs In A Minor went on to sell millions of copies and earn multiple Grammys. She told HuffPost in an interview, "[Fear of] failure isn't an option. I've erased the word 'fear' from my vocabulary, and I think when you erase fear, you can't fail."

Clichés about failure in business aren’t hard to come by:

  • The only failure is not having the courage to try.
  • Failure is only a waste if you don’t learn a lesson from it.
  • Failure is the best way to find out what doesn’t work before you land on what does.

Certainly, Thomas Edison subscribed to that last one. He claimed that each of the thousands of times he failed trying to invent the light bulb brought him closer to actually doing it.

It’s still Theodore Roosevelt’s famous passage from his 1910 speech “Citizenship in a Republic” that I believe captures this best:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory or defeat.

I really wish for you all to grow into young women who are not afraid to try and fail, to see the need to fail in order to succeed, to risk failure rather than doing nothing at all. Being a human being who does not try to make a difference in any part of their life for fear of getting it wrong is so much worse than failure itself.

And who knows – you may just get it right.

 

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