Failure: a love story

015 - A moment of weakness

When I told my students that our final class would focus on the topic of failure, there were winces all around. But in the end, most of them told me that this unit was their favorite. “Next time, why don’t you start the class with this?” one student even asked.

The idea of spending a session on failure came to me after listening to an NPR piece about its prominent place in the lives of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. “This is, like, failure central. We are, like, connoisseurs of failure, experts in both avoiding it and living with it ongoing,” said Paul Graham, founder of the start-up funder Y Combinator.

The nine students in my “Living Strategically” seminar are members of UMass Amherst’s Commonwealth Honors College. They are talented, articulate, and thoughtful, with high aspirations and transcripts filled with As. All of them are preparing to apply for post-graduate fellowships. They have lots of experience with success, not so much with failure.

They reminded me of myself at their age, and I wanted to offer them something that would have been useful to me then: The idea that failure can be a fertile starting place. That it’s a natural part of life — temporary, not defining. It took me a long time to learn this. I’d like to think that my students are well on their way to learning it now.

Our jumping off point was journalist Rick Newman’s Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, which I previously wrote about here. The book had resonated with me when I read it last year – Newman shares my curiosity about the underpinnings of resilience – and happily my students loved it, one describing it as the “punchline” of the semester. In particular, they responded to Newman’s personal story of climbing back from setbacks. The rebounder as role model:  It’s something we could use more of.

Perhaps more than anything, I wanted to drive home the notion that failure doesn’t have to be such a big deal. Like the Wizard of Oz – “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” — failure isn’t really what it claims to be. Behind the curtain is this little guy, madly ginning up the special effects to create a lot of noise. And because there’s nothing like humor to put things into perspective, I had students watch Laura Zigman’s “Failure is the New Success” video, as funny as it is true. Point made.

Finally, we read a piece that I’d serendipitously stumbled across at work the week before – New Yorker writer and surgeon (and Harvard School of Public Health professor) Atul Gawande’s  beautiful meditation on “Failure and Rescue,” delivered as a commencement address at Williams College. Gawande observes that good hospitals have lots of things go wrong – as many as their less successful peers. Research has shown that great hospitals “didn’t fail less. They rescued more.”  (This piece also won student accolades, with one saying that she’d sent it on to a number of friends.)

A major focus of the “Living Strategically” seminar is writing a personal story, and throughout the semester, we spent a lot of time talking about crafting a compelling narrative.  What makes something interesting? What makes it boring? In a fascinating Harvard Business Review piece, Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback reflect on why so many career changers are terrible storytellers. The answer: They rely too much on chronology, failing to craft stories that tap into sources of continuity and coherence. They fail to choose story forms that suit their tales of reinvention.

Stories are powerful. We shape our stories, but our stories then shape us. That has never been clearer to me than it’s been since I started Plan B Nation. Here is what I wish for my students, for all of us: That our success stories are vibrant and expansive enough to incorporate—and honor—our failures.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

16 thoughts on “Failure: a love story

  1. Wonderful post, Amy. You may have come across the following NYTimes article from 2011, but if not, I wanted to share it with you and your readers. Paul Tough wrote “What if the secret to success is failure?” and the Times published it online 9/14/2011. It’s a fascinating read and includes information about a “grit” self-evaluation “test” that apparently is a good predictor of future career success. It might be fun to start your seminar by having your students take the simple grit test. Here’s a link to the article: .

    • Thank you so much! The NYT piece you mention sounds vaguely familiar, and I’ll definitely look at it again. Sounds like something that belongs in my files–and my class, if I teach it again. Much appreciated.

  2. Wonderful essay Amy! Failure is a great learning experience. Harder is learning from failure because it requires humility, which something we are conditioned not to feel. Especially in my business, where everyone thinks they must be “winners,” and careers are built in a straightline of a series of successes. So smaller failures are explained away and not learned from, because of ego….next thing you know your organization has lost billions of dollars…

  3. I’m thinking Esalen workshop, Amy – or Omega. Who doesn’t want to write their life story anew with you guiding them?

  4. Excellent, as always!

    F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote an essay about the dangers of early success. The gist, as I recall, is that it makes it much harder to handle failure that enevitably happens later. Of course, if success comes too late, you may be too bitter to appreciate it. Timing, as they say, is everything.

    I wish I’d had a class like yours when I was in college. It would have helped make sense of a lot of things.

    • Thank you, Matthew! I wish I had taken such a class too (though not entirely sure I would have been able to take it in at the time). In any case, so glad I have a chance to teach it now (and learn it all again–I can never learn it enough!)

  5. Marvelous post! History cannot be simply one damned thing after another. Concomitant events have to be taken into account to make a great story and most of those events are failures of all sorts, the meaty interesting parts of our stories.

    • Thanks so much for reading — and yes, so much of the meat of the stories is in the things that go awry, if we can only find a way to tap into that. (I, for one, find it an ongoing challenge — writing this blog helps a lot, though!)

  6. Long ago, Jules Feiffer and I had a long talk about failure. Some of the interview is here:

    He said, “One of the things that I learned about myself over the years, having been beaten up a lot, is that it’s not failure that counts, but how you treat failure and what your attitude is going to be about it. Because, of course, if you do anything that is of value, or — for that matter — if you screw up, you are going to fail. One way or another, you are going to fail – sometimes for the good things and sometimes for the bad things.”

    It’s great that you taught this class. We all need to get more comfortable with failure.

    • Wow, how cool that you talked to Jules Feiffer! Thanks for sending the link — really look forward to reading it. The quote you included has a very Buddhist feel to it to me — the focus on how we relate to the feeling as a means to being *with* it, and not swamped *by* it.

      • Yes, and just like when you sit with any other sort of feeling/experience, you can see other facets of failure — or other opportunities in the story you’re telling about yourself. I’m not saying that very well. Feiffer’s novels for middle readers and adults (The Man in the Ceiling and A Barrel of Laughs) are very good at exploring inner landscapes like this. I had a huge breakthrough with my business recently after months of feeling like a failure for not being able to do everything I was trying to do. I sat with this weeks — in tears — and finally started asking different questions about my business problem. Suddenly, a business that I thought was dying presented itself to me as a very promising, solvent venture if I just tweaked a few things. All of my energy has been returned to me. So… opportunity and relief were found inside the “failure.” And Feiffer is great at seeing the gifts inside difficult experiences.

        • Let me know if you’d consider pulling all this together in a guest post, Cathy! I’d love to read more about the Feiffer connection and your own experiences.

  7. This is really awesome. It’s funny, I stumbled on this famous quote this morning. Your post seems very timely.

    Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
    Winston Churchill

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