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Ask the Expert: How to fail better

Jan 3, 2022

Failure is part of life, but how we respond to it can either discourage us or propel us forward. Robert Kunzman, the Martha Lea and Bill Armstrong Chair for Teacher Education 2015 and professor of curriculum studies and philosophy of education in the IU School of Education in Bloomington, teaches a class in the Hutton Honors College that focuses on what we can learn from these experiences. We asked him to share some tips for navigating failure in 2022.

View failure as vital

“Failure is critical for growth. If you succeed too often and too early, it can give you a false sense of security. We often need the experience of an absolute debacle to jar us into seeking new and better ways to do things.

“Stuart Firestein observes that the word debacle – an unmitigated disaster or total failure – originated from the French word débâcler, which means literally ‘unleashing.’ It was used to refer to nautical ice breaking – the ships that break up solid ice to provide a new path forward. This is a great metaphor for the creative potential of failure.”

Navigate risk and emotion

“When we fail at something we care deeply about, we often feel grief. It’s important to know how to acknowledge and live with grief amidst our ongoing efforts to succeed.

“One way to do this is to start small, what author and entrepreneur Peter Sims calls ‘little bets.’ Put just enough time and effort into a task to get the feedback you need, which will allow you to confirm the direction of a concept or pivot in another direction without getting too emotionally invested in the work. You must make these little bets part of your regular working process so you can better manage the emotions that come with risk and failure.”

Develop analytical tools

“It can be easy to attribute failure to bad decisions that should have been obvious at the time, but this hindsight bias doesn’t help us grow. When failure happens, it’s important to try to determine what issues led to that outcome so you can learn from those mistakes or setbacks.

“Sometimes we might even be able to learn from failure before it actually happens, by conducting a ‘premortem.’ For this exercise, imagine that you are a year into the future, your plan has been implemented, and the result was disastrous. Take five to 10 minutes to write a history of that disaster. This may help you identify any potential drawbacks to your approach, but also – when you look back at it later – confirm that whatever setbacks did occur, you couldn’t necessarily have seen them coming.

“Another way to analyze our failures is to share them with a trusted friend or colleague who can help us understand why something happened and how it could have been handled differently. We can then draw on this knowledge when confronted with a new challenge.”

Reorient values

“No matter how skilled we are, there are some factors that are beyond our control and may get in the way of our desired outcomes. So rather than being hyper-focused on success, shift your mindset to prioritize making good decisions. This will help you respond calmly and learn from the experience when something doesn’t go your way, and improve your decision-making skills in the long run.

“Resilience in the face of failure is not a fixed or innate quality, but a fluctuating capacity. It’s not simply about ‘bouncing back’ from failure, but learning to manage the ongoing tension that exists as we navigate the distance between what we desire in our lives and what we actually experience.”


IU Newsroom

Barbara Brosher

Executive Director of Storytelling and Research Communications

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