October 04, 2016

Risk-Taking and the Celebration of Failure

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

I teach at a small liberal arts institution. As part of the college’s ethos, we believe in working with students to focus on a holistic education that fosters creativity, critical thinking, civic engagement, and social justice. In order to facilitate a greater and deeper education, several faculty members (including me) have talked about ways to encourage risk-taking among our students. This is difficult for a variety of reasons that include the possibility for failure. As a society, we have socialized ourselves into celebrating success and admonishing failure as, well, a failure. It is something to be ashamed of, feared, and avoided. This ideology frames everything from education policy to the design of social safety nets to promotion practices to how we answer well-meaning family members’ nosy questions about our lives.

But what if we flipped the narrative on failing? What if we instead viewed failure as part of the learning process and celebrated thoughtful failure? This is something we think we inherently know; how often do we tell children to try, try again. Or how many of us have seen inspirational quotes where successful people talk about all the times they failed, before they succeeded. Yet, when put into practice the idea of failing is still very scary.

I’m not advocating for even larger bonuses for CEOs who bankrupt companies. I’m also not thinking about the debates around celebrating everyone or how the U.S. is a trophy-obsessed nation. I have no opinion on whether everyone getting a trophy is good or bad; partly because I don’t care and partly because sociologists are not generally concerned with simple either-or questions. Rather we ask why and we analyze the impacts of social beliefs and behaviors.

Instead, I’m curious about the idea that celebrating thoughtful failure can lead to innovative solutions to big problems. By thoughtful failure, I’m referring to a process whereby one systematically documents the steps taken to address a given problem, and indicates where in the process of execution things went slightly or even horribly wrong. Ideally, one would then think through steps to fix the problem.

Within certain fields – including sociology – many professors follow this model in our research: we have a null hypothesis, we document limitations of our studies, and we suggest how others might expand upon our research. In our writing, we know that it is very rare for an academic journal to accept our paper without revisions. Yet, many of us – myself included – don’t often think through the ways that we can better embrace failure as a process of learning. And, we often don’t think through ways to encourage thoughtful failure (and risk-taking) in our students.

A recent episode on the TED Radio Hour focused on “Failure as an Option.” The idea is that failure is connected to imagination, whereas the fear of failure is inherently a cultural construct. The entire episode is definitely worth listening to, however, two of the participants proposed ideas that resonated with me.

Dr. Astro Teller, a computer scientist, is currently the CEO (or Captain of Moonshots) of Google X, Alphabet Inc. During the segment he talked about how he has worked to create a culture of failure at X in order to get people to work on big, bold, and risky problems. Teller accomplishes this by rewarding failure through promotions, bonuses, cheers, and hugs. It’s not just any failure, however, that is supported. Rather, Teller rewards thoughtful failure, where employees figure out what the flaws are in a project and then redirect course. This might mean tweaking specific things, or abandoning the project altogether. Teller believes that this approach empowers employees to dream big, find more productive paths, and figure out the hardest part of a problem first.

As part of the podcast, Tim Harford, senior economist for the Financial Times and author of The Undercover Economist book and blog, discussed both the “god complex” that many of us exhibit in our refusal to accept our own failures, and the importance of trial and error. For Harford, the god complex emerges because some people believe they are infallible, and too smart or moral to make mistakes. This refusal to reflect on one’s own imperfections, leads people to continue to make the same errors without correcting their path.

We all know of people who engage in this behavior (we may even exhibit the god complex from time to time). Ultimately, the god complex comes from a place of fear: fear of losing, fear of change, fear of making things worse. These are real fears that can have devastating consequences; for instance, the loss of a job, the loss of life, or the potential to screw up things for others. This fear can be immobilizing, and it can also stifle learning.

But, if we are unable to reflect on our mistakes, on our failures, how will we find better ways of being and doing? If we consistently think that failure is not an option, how are we to grapple with questions that don’t have a single correct answer, or are unanswerable? Acknowledging failure as part of the process then has the possibility to open up learning.

Some professors have found ways to embrace failure in the classroom. Greg Siering from the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Indiana University has some interesting ideas here. Similarly, in an article in Inside Higher Ed, mathematics professor Edward Burger talks about grading students on the quality of their failures. I’ve used some of these ideas in thinking through how to better get students to take risks, and fail big (and thoughtfully). But I’m left wondering how else we might get more people to embrace failure as a process of learning. This inevitably requires a cultural shift, again rewarding or at least acknowledging certain types of failure as necessary.

If you could dream big and work without the fear of failure, what would you create? How might the option of risk-taking open up your educational opportunities? How might risk-taking hinder it?


I'm the type of person who isn't afraid to fail. Most of the time, that's where I find motivation to do better.

Or maybe because as social scientists, you're already tired of reading people even before they speak? Or just tired to go out there dealing with potential patients so you just choose to go inside your "happy places" and read your books instead. :) - This is my wife's comment. She's sitting beside me. She's a social scientist. :)

Nice Article

I have learned a lot from all of my failures but I fear the starting over process. The fear of will I succeed the second time around is what gets me.

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