Rethinking Failure

At our monthly leadership seminar for our seniors led by the head of school, we considered failure and what it means and what success means. Failure, we decided, was how one learned, and that to be a leader, one needed to fail and learn from it.  If you’re not failing, many of the students said, then you’re not taking risks, you’re not really trying. You’re keeping in your comfort zone.

I failed my first computer science class. And yet, here I am teaching computer science. I learned from that failure what I did and didn’t like about computer science, and, although I avoided classes for a while, I eventually started learning on my own, then took classes both online and in person. I explored some other areas, which I now connect to my Computer Science work. I may not be an expert programmer, but I’m good at teaching CS, and I’m good at learning new things in the CS world. And I learned that from my failure.

I threw up just before my first ever presentation, my first year in grad school.  But I made it through and that research became part of my dissertation years later.  And I gave many a presentation later, but not after some other failures on that front.

When I was about to give my first job talk, a slide-based presentation as opposed to presentations where I read every word from a written-out paper (common in humanities at the time), I practiced my talk for my husband. It was terrible and he told me so. I burst into tears, but then, I took his feedback and made it better. And I got the job.

When the job to start a Computer Science program opened up at my school, at first, I hesitated, but I thought of all the times I’d tried something, I’d failed, but I’d survived, and I’d gotten stronger. So I applied, and I got the job, which has led me to where I am now.

I fail almost every day. And when I do, I don’t wallow in it (much). I think, okay, what’s next. What can I do to fix that? What can I do next time to make that better? Or I realize that the failure wasn’t about me; it was something totally out of my control.

I know it can be cliché to talk about failure as a learning experience, but when you step back and really look at it and really reflect on it so that you can move forward productively, it really is one of the most important learning experiences one can have. Reframing that for our students as they head out into the world is important. There are failures they’ll face that they’ve never faced before as the world broadens for them and as they take more risks. If they’re going to succeed, they need to fail.




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