The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

Can you fake failure?

I was interested by a story on the BBC webpage a couple of days ago about a ‘top girls’ school’ which was having a “failure week” with “an emphasis on having a go rather than playing it safe and perhaps achieving less”. It all certainly appears to be a good idea, teaching pupils resilience, but can it actually work? Can you be taught to ‘fail well’? Is there even such a thing as ‘failing well’?

Now I have to point out that at the moment I am only taking this information from the news article, and need to do a lot more research on the topic in general and the specifics of this case (but trust me, I intend to!). However, there were a couple of things in the article that struck me straight away: 

First of all “There will be YouTube clips of famous and successful people who have failed along the way and moved on” – now that is fine, but isn’t it also a little niaive? What about people who made mistakes and were devastated by them and didn’t ever become succesful because of them? I’ll bet there are plenty more of them out there, so is this proposal just a biased piece of mind-training? The thing that made them succesful is their subsequent success, not the failure.

Second, “The emphasis will be discussions on the merits of failure and on the negative side of trying too hard not to fail” – the merits of failure? Are there any? You set out to achieve something, you failed – now it may be that because of this you go on to do something else and achieve at it, but the initial failure is now an unintended part of the process – but we love to dress these things up as part of the process, when the final consequences often have little to do with the initial failure. It is all very well people saying ‘I found 999 ways not to do it before I found the one way to do it’ but everyone who says that would far rather have got it right the first time! The fact is, they succeeded eventually. They are feted, whilst those who failed 1000 times out of 1000 are consigned to the ‘waste of space’ pile.

I did terribly at school, but my failures there did not lead me directly to where I am now – they were a small part of a highly complex set of circumstances which led me to here. And how can I even know who or what I would be if it hadn’t been for those failures? Better or worse? Those people in the YouTube clips can’t know this either – they might have been more or less succesful if they hadn’t failed, living or dead. The hypothetical ‘me’ who did not fail can never be known; maybe he came out of the pub after celebrating his exam success and was hit by a bus!

That leads to my main point – can you actually ‘train’ for dealing with failure? Yes, you can make something difficult so that people fail it, but that sort of failure is like not being able to finish a level on a computer game – it might be mildly frustrating and annoying that you have spent time and effort on it, that you might have to do it again, etc. But what about ‘real’ failure? Failure with consequences? Gut-wrenching, ‘my life is never going to be the same again’ failure? Because that is the failure that matters.

This ‘failure week’ strikes me as a ‘you wanted the expensive shiny red thing but you got the expensive shiny blue thing’ type of failure – it has to be superficial, it can’t be anything else, you can’t play with people’s lives. For real training in failure with consequences, you would have to take some of the students and say ‘I’m sorry, but your career as a lawyer is in tatters because you didn’t get into university’ and let them ruminate on that for a week or so. Of course, you couldn’t do that, it wouldn’t be ethical, but that is the only way that you can really approach the notion of dealing with failure – true failure that people have to deal with as a big part of their lives.

And that is my issue here – it looks good, it makes a wonderful soundbite, but is it going to make one blind bit of difference for anyone taking part in it when they are faced with failure and the consequences of that failure? I just can’t see it I’m afraid.

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Categorised in: Education, Psychology

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