How Learning to Fail Taught Me How to Live

By December 12, 2015 2 Comments

Many university students will enter university with a preconceived notion about what this part of their life will entail and where it will lead them. Many are pursuing a given pathway because they’ve been told that it’s the right one to lead them to a respectable profession in society, whether that’s a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or researcher. In my experience though, few students will come out with the same perception – or even the same career goals – as they came in with. A lot happens in those four years spent within the walls of the academy. Failure in life is unavoidable. But to a generation of students who are so accustomed to structure, it can be terribly paralyzing.

Structure and stability seem to be a big part of what defines our current generation of students. I don’t blame anyone for being this way; after all, I was very much this way myself and, to an extent, still am. This is how we’ve been educated and, in many cases, this is how we’ve been raised. We want to be successful but we want a formula that will make us successful. What is the best program to take to become a doctor? What is the average we will have to maintain? How many extracurriculars should we pursue and which ones will make our CV the most competitive? While structure is necessary to ensure that our students meet certain developmental and educational outcomes, it can also hinder students’ ability to see beyond a linear path and to step outside of their immediate comfort zones.

Today’s competitive postsecondary environment puts immense pressure on students to succeed. For example, the Bachelor of Health Sciences program at McMaster University is one of Canada’s most sought after undergraduate programs with nearly 4,000 applicants a year and only 160 available spots for first-year students. In 2013-14, nearly 45% of the graduate class pursed a career in medicine, further contextualizing the pressure that students face to maintain good grades and a standout extracurricular portfolio. With such high stakes it is not difficult to see how, for many students, failure is simply not an option.

But what happens when students do fail? When I discovered that being a cancer researcher wasn’t all that I had envisioned based on my limited understanding of biology in high school, it felt as if everything came crashing down. I had been so focused on a single, linear pathway, that I hadn’t considered any other options. Getting through wasn’t easy but it was, in the end, attainable. My parents were instrumental in teaching me that failure was another opportunity for learning which made it so much less scary to contend with! My mentors saw greatness in me even when I did not and inspired me to see myself not as a failure but as someone who was discovering who they could be.

missing the target
Failure in life is unavoidable. But to a generation of students who are so accustomed to structure, it can be terribly paralyzing. Even just the thought of failure can prevent students from taking risks and trying new things. That is why it is critical that, as university educators, we make our mission not only the delivery of an educational curriculum but also the delivery of the curriculum of life. When we teach our students how to fail, we are simultaneously teaching them how to live.

Different educators may play different roles in promoting what we, the 3M National Student and Teaching Fellows, have affectionately come to call “safe fails.” This isn’t to say that all failure that students will experience will ever be “safe” (as someone put it during the LearningXChange conference, “I’m not sure if there is a way to fail safely. Sometimes you fail in the worst of ways”). But university is the perfect environment to undo the years of restrictive thinking that students have been accustomed to and to teach them something that they can carry forward in their lives. Failure is scary especially when it seems big and life altering, so it’s important to start with things that students can genuinely embrace as valuable learning opportunities.

Opportunities for “safe fails” can be as simple as challenging your students to think outside of the box in your classes and giving them space to do so without penalty (after all, students are often risk-averse because they’re worried about how something is going to affect their grades). Other times, your role may be one that is more involved, for example mentoring a student who seems to have experienced failure or seeing the potential in someone who may never before have been given a chance. Collectively, we can also join forces with other educators to be champions for our students. How do we create a system where students are encouraged to challenge their assumptions and to try new things? Co-operative education, community-engaged learning, undergraduate research and inquiry, interdisciplinary ways of thinking and learning, and extracurricular engagement are just a few examples of opportunities that are likely to have a very positive impact on students’ growth and development.

In truly embracing our educational institutes as places of higher learning, we commit ourselves to understanding that we are not just teaching students about a discipline, but that we are also teaching them about learning and about life. And as such, we must strive to create students who have the courage to look failure directly in the eye and see it not as loss but as an opportunity for truly meaningful learning.

Anita Acai

Anita obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry from the University of Guelph, where she was a President’s Scholar, 3M National Student Fellow, and Millennium Award Laureate. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Health Science Education at McMaster University. Anita was highly involved in the University of Guelph community as a writing peer helper, academic support facilitator, and a member of student government. Her research and commentary on modern pedagogical practices, the relevance of the post-secondary education sector, and experiential and skills-based learning have been featured in several peer-reviewed publications and at both national and international conferences on teaching and learning.


  • Jennifer Hounsell says:


    Thank you for sharing your insights on failing in the academy. I agree with much of what you’ve said, and have done some research in a similar area. I think, though, that there is a big difference between failing as in not living up to your first set of expectations, and failing as in officially failing at a task, assignment, course, etc., and even other more common “life things” like failing at a career by being fired, or failing to secure that apartment you had your eye on. I would imagine that these different types of failure (of which I am sure there are more) will also have different impacts on people, students included.

    Overall I really fully agree with the message that failure doesn’t have to be the most negative thing, and often ends up being a positive learning experience. Unfortunately that, as you discussed, takes some work to get to because we are so used to trying to do everything BUT fail. When we think of failure, we think of pain and sadness, disappointment, shame, regret… but nothing positive. The worst thing that can happen is often not failure, but it feels like it is the worst thing when it happens, and it is what we are taught. The only thing we should fear more than failure (apparently) is death. But yet, so many students have a Hermoine Granger mentality (We could get hurt, or worse… expelled), and it really isn’t healthy. I feel like I’m rambling now, and could talk about this all day.

    I liked your discussion of “safe fails”, especially this part “But university is the perfect environment to undo the years of restrictive thinking that students have been accustomed to and to teach them something that they can carry forward in their lives.”

    I mentioned that I did some research on failure, specifically I looked at the student experience and how failure ended up being some of the best learning experiences. I found that instructors played crucial roles in turning failure into success, and this was done by creating a safe space as well as deliberately using the failure as a teaching moment. I think it would be great to look deeper at all the different things that encourage people to associate failure with, for example, worthlessness.

    Great article!


  • Mick Healey says:

    Dear Anita
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience of failure. It is a wonderful account of how you found failure to be a learning opportunity.

    Fear of failure is something which affects most students and faculty in higher education, as for much of our lives we have been lauded as successes. Giving students the opportunity to fail in a safe environment is an important challenge for teachers in designing their classes. Similarly universities need to allow their faculty to fail without censure. Some of the biggest lessons we learn are through reflecting on our failures.

    Earlier today I was reading the Real World Learning Vision 2020 for Queensland University of Technology which includes the statement that: “We will encourage and enable new ways of thinking and working through: … investing in and rewarding innovation, and building tolerance for failure as a necessary part of innovation” https://www.qut.edu.au/about/strategic-ambitions/real-world-learning-2020-vision. I wish that more universities would make this value explicit.

    The most moving speech I have ever heard is the address that J K Rowling made at at Harvard University’s Commencement in 2008. Her theme was learning from failure. Do watch her deliver her talk at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHGqp8lz36c. Here is a brief extract.

    “the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

    … by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

    So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

    You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

    J K Rowling Commencement Speech at Harvard University 5th June 2008 http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2008/06/text-of-j-k-rowling-speech/