To err is human! Nevertheless, individual mistakes and our own failures are taboo subjects in our society. Already in childhood we learn that mistakes are something bad and have to be avoided. This attitude is reinforced through school education and many people are unable to take calculated risks. However, if we look at highly successful individuals, we notice that many of them had a difficult past and had to learn how to deal with adversity. This seems to be a contradiction to the assumption that failure is something negative. Thus, the question arises whether failures also have a positive influence on individual learning success. This post will look at why failures are the foundation for development, how individuals learn from mistakes, and why an environment that tolerates failure can have a positive impact on long-term success.
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We live in a society where successes are celebrated and failures punished. Even if the avoidance of (unnecessary) risks seems to make sense from an evolutionary point of view and has manifested itself over a long period of time as an integral part of human psychology, the usefulness of this must at least be critically questioned from the current perspective. Smith & Henriksen (2016) point out that openness to failure is an essential prerequisite for curiosity or curious behavior. However, the traditional education system reaches its limits here, as it is not designed to create a safe environment where mistakes are tolerated and experimental learning is encouraged. The authors explicitly note that such an environment is necessary, however, to foster appropriate risk-taking. At a time when creativity is becoming increasingly important in the workplace, the education system must also be aligned with these types of requirements. In order to enable creative action in the context of education, it is imperative that there is an acceptance that individuals may fail.¹
While fault tolerance is desirable, it should not be taken too far. It is important not only to make mistakes, but also to learn from them. Harvard professor Amy C. Edmondson (2011) emphasizes that for this to happen, the (flawed) link between failure and blame must first be broken, as it cannot be assumed by default that individuals are always responsible for their own failures. Again and again, failure results from the complexity of the underlying situation or from acting under uncertainty. Taking this perspective into account can create an environment in which mistakes are dealt with openly and individuals or even entire organizations can learn from them. The goal should be to eliminate avoidable mistakes and to provoke intelligent mistakes, as they can generate valuable knowledge. Without the willingness to fail, there would be no innovation and we would find ourselves at a standstill. Organizations that aspire to be leaders in their industry should therefore invest in structures that encourage intelligent failure and extensive learning. Failure must be discovered early and analyzed in detail so that experimentation yields meaningful insights. However, many organizations are unable to create realistic scenarios and, for example, only test new products and/or services under ideal conditions, resulting in misleading recommendations.²
A widely recognized approach that explicitly considers the importance of failure for learning is Manu Kapur’s concept of productive failure. Here, Kapur (2016) distinguishes between different possibilities in terms of immediate performance and long-term learning success. He assumes that learning and performance are not always compatible and distinguishes between productive and unproductive outcomes. In the case of productive outcomes, whether it is a success or a failure, there is always a long-term learning effect, whereas this is absent in the case of unproductive outcomes. Therefore, in scenarios where the focus is on learning rather than short-term performance, it should not matter what the outcome is. The danger of a good outcome is that it creates the illusion of learning. However, the same problem exists here as with the link between decision and outcome: a positive outcome does not mean that the person in question has learned anything, nor that he or she has made a good decision. The specific outcome is influenced by many other factors. Productive failure, on the other hand, is characterized by the fact that although there is a poor performance outcome, which could superficially be called a failure, the person in question has a long-term learning success. Failure in this case simply means that the acting person does not or cannot arrive at the best possible outcome. Kapur argues that the strongest learning success occurs when new knowledge is linked to existing knowledge. This is not possible through methods of fully independent learning, nor is it possible through methods of fully guided learning. Instead, individuals should access scaffolding that provides adequate support to solve problems independently and learn from individual (and inevitable) failures.³
As described above, the current educational system is not designed to provoke intelligent failure and experimental learning. Individuals who value long-term learning success seem to face a difficult decision: should the focus be on the best possible performance or on maximizing learning success? However, the answer to this question is not possible in a generalized way, but always depends on the individual situation. Learning methods should always be tailored to one’s own goals in order to demonstrate the highest probability of success. Individuals should always keep in mind that there is no shame in failing, but rather that it always comes with the opportunity to reflect and learn. It can be assumed that facing adversity can lead to the affected individuals being able to refer to past events at a later point in time and being able to transfer the knowledge gained from them onto a new kind of challenge. In addition, it is to be expected that (impending) failures also promote general skills (soft skills) that can have a positive impact on long-term success.
Those who choose the path of continuous learning should be aware that personal development only works if they are honest with themselves. Experimental learning and the adaptation of knowledge presuppose that a certain amount of relevant knowledge is already available. Before attempting to master new challenges, it makes sense to evaluate whether sufficient knowledge is actually available or whether the basics are still lacking. If this hurdle is indeed overcome, investments can be made in the purposeful development of an environment that helps one approach the demanding challenges of the unknown. The supportive environment can consist of technical aids, knowledgeable individuals, a tolerant employer, and/or any other person who supports individual learning. Expertise alone is no longer sufficient to succeed in a profession, as nearly everyone has access to relevant information via the Internet. Adaptability, creativity, problem-solving and other skills are increasingly important for professional and personal success. However, they cannot be learned without individuals experimenting and failure is and always will be an essential part of this journey.
Everyone will face challenges and encounter failure at some point in their lives. Failures do not have a direct positive or negative impact on one’s life, but they do create situations that have the potential to do so. Those who learn from their mistakes have the opportunity to create a change that can have a positive impact on their own situation, relevant processes or entire structures. For some people, the comfort of the known is a safe haven they will not leave. For others, driven by curiosity, the unknown creates a stimulus that enables new discoveries. Only when these individuals exist can we experience breakthrough innovations that change and enrich our everyday lives. A prerequisite for this is an environment characterized by tolerance for intelligent failure and a fair assessment of the complex relationship between failure and blame.
¹ Smith, S., & Henriksen, D. (2016). Fail again, fail better: Embracing failure as a paradigm for creative learning in the arts. Art Education, 69(2), 6-11.
² Edmondson, A. C. (2011). Strategies for learning from failure. Harvard business review, 89(4), 48-55.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21510518/. (PMID: 21510518).
³ Kapur, M. (2016). Examining productive failure, productive success, unproductive failure, and unproductive success in learning. Educational Psychologist, 51(2), 289-299.