How do we learn to fail? Lessons from Target and Wimbledon High School.

How do we learn how to fail?  I know this sounds like a ridiculous question, we don’t need to “know” how to fail because it just happens.  We start with a plan or idea and it could be any plan really: to get an A on a paper, to get into a certain school, to ask someone out on a date, or to get that next promotion.  We then set in motion actions that will get us closer to our plan: studying the class material, preparing an application, finding out a phone number (I have to admit my dating experience might be a “dated”), or delivering a key project for your boss.  Eventually you will either succeed or fail in your plan: maybe you ace the test, you get your acceptance letter, she agrees to a first date, or you get that promotion?  But maybe you don’t?  And if not, then what happens next?  What is your fallback plan, your contingency, or your pivot?  How do you pick yourself up and move on?

If you think back through your life, where do we get a chance to learn how to accept failure and bounce back?  The paradox is that often times the more “successful” you have been in life, academically, personally, or professionally the fewer chances you have had to embrace your failures and learn that you can recover from them.  I have always been a big fan of learning by example.  Show me an example of what good looks like and I will strive to surpass that expectation?  But if we begin with fewer opportunities or worse yet we deny ourselves the opportunity to fail how will we know what “good failure” looks like?

A friend of mine shared with me that last week Target Corporation kicked off “Design Month” at their headquarters in Minneapolis, MN.  The theme this year is all about learning from failure.  They have posters are up everywhere reading “Failure to Succeed” with scheduled events throughout the month discussing failure.  The keynote event will be a presentation by inventor / entrepreneur James Dyson of the Dyson vacuum fame.  This by itself is impressive in that most organizations I have researched barely even mention the possibility of failure let along address it head on.  But what will be more important for Target is not how they talk about the importance of failure but how they act when failure occurs.

In last week’s post I received positive comments and some feedback on Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk discussing how our schools are killing creativity.  In the TED Talk video Robinson discusses how the entire K-12 educational system is meant to weed out creativity, spontaneity, and trial and error.  Earlier this year I had read a great story from the BBC (link here) that ties together both of these concepts perfectly.

Wimbledon High School, a top girls’ school in the UK, was hosting their first “Failure Week” where students were encouraged to explore risk taking, failure, and the lessons that can be learned from our mistakes.  The principle (or headmistress as they refer to her) was quoted as saying “the girls need to learn how to fail well – and how to get over it and cope with it” and that the “fear of failing can be really crippling and stop the girls doing things they really want to do.”  This is a perfect environment to de-risk the repercussions and stigma associated with failure!

By the way if you are curious for more details on Wimbledon High School (link here), there is an interesting Wiki page with the school’s history.  To be honest, it sounds a little like the basis for JK Rowling’s Hogwarts.  Speaking of Rowling, here is one of my favorite commencement addresses from her to the Harvard graduating class of 2008 on the “fringe benefits of failure.”  There was a lot of noise at the time on why a writer was important enough to address the future captains of industry coming out of Harvard.  Maybe after the critics realized that JK Rowling’s net worth had surpassed $1 billion they quieted down?


Food for thought:

  • When is the last time you failed?  Did you take the time to examine why, what you learned, or what you would do differently?
  • Are you creating an environment where you or others can learn from failure?  At work?  At home?  At school?
  • Are you or others shunning risk because of the consequences of failure?  Is the impact to your esteem or your career?

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