Sowing Failure, Reaping Success: What Failure Can Teach By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK and KATHERINE SCHULTEN

Sowing Failure, Reaping Success: What Failure Can Teach

Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, moments before losing Super Bowl XLVI to the New York Giants.Mark Humphrey/Associated PressBill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, moments before losing to the Giants, 21-17, in Super Bowl XLVI in February.

When Have You Ever Failed at Something?
What Happened as a Result?

We pose these questions for students to answer as part of thinking about the broad theme of “failure”: how it is defined, what it means and what it can lead to.

Everyone grapples with failure, even (or maybe especially) tremendously successful people. Both J. K. Rowling and Steve Jobs, for instance, talked about failure during commencement addresses, Ms. Rowling at Harvard in 2008 and Mr. Jobs at Stanford in 2005, where he famously emphasized the importance of failure to success, particularly after he was fired, at age 30, from Apple, the company he co-founded:

“It turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” he said. “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods in my life.”

Below, we suggest essential questions about failure, what it means, and what can come from it; list just a few examples of famous “failures” from fields like sports, business, science, the arts and education; and suggest activities students might use to study and learn from failure.

What are we missing? What great examples of failure in any field should we include here? What interesting educational projects have you done around the notion of failure? Let us know.

Key Questions:

What is “failure”? What is “success”? Who defines each?

When have you ever failed, by your own definition?

How do you deal with failure?

Can failure be useful? Can you think of examples, from your own life or someone else’s, when it has led to something positive?

How is failure defined and dealt with in your family, your school, the activities you do outside of school, among your friends and in your community? Which of those definitions and responses to failure seem fairest or best to you? Why?

What can be done to avoid failure? Should people try to avoid it?

How can people recover from failure?

How have you been failed by others?

Where do you see failure in society around you?


Sports can present stark examples of success and failure. There is little gray area — a team wins or loses.

Many know that the Yankees have more World Series championships (27)than any team in baseball, but what about the least successful teams?

Research teams or players in different sports to try to find the worst, byseasonal record, points scored, individual statistics or some other metric, using the Internet, libraries and resources like The New York Times’s archives. What made the team or player so awful?

How did the team turn things around? If it never did, how might the team had turned things around?

Sometimes, however, the margin between a triumphant and mediocre athletic career can be razor-thin. Compare records of successful players with records of those who were not. (Baseball, with its many statistics, is particularly suited to this activity.) What is the line between a great hitter, server or quarterback and a middling one?

You might also investigate how a good player can go “bad.” Examine the ups and downs in a player’s career averages and try to determine when their talent faded. Do coaches in the league often make decisions related to the numbers, or is it more arbitrary? How often are there outliers? An example could be the 37-year-old shortstop Derek Jeter, who is in his 18th major league season with the Yankees and is having a great start in 2012.

Or, consider why fans adore and root for losing teams.  What do they get out of it, if anything?  Examine the psychology of a die-hard fan for a team that rarely rewards their ardor.  Alternately, defend a team you like despite a feeble record.


Failures play both an inspirational and Darwinian role in business.  Many companies find the seeds of creativity in failure, while others do all they can to stave it off.

How do companies bounce back after failure, whether because they’ve blundered with a product like New Coke, or whether they have undermined the world economy with questionable financial instruments?

Which businesses are too big to fail, and need a government bailout? Is it fair that some businesses are protected this way? Do you think it’s necessary?

Consider when failure is actually desirable for a business. Some highly competitive jobs prize people capable of acknowledging their past failings, while others desperately seek to overcome a perception of failure.  When has afailed endeavor led to a better business model, a new invention, and eventual success?


As in business, failure in science can be a catalyst for new discovery. But success and failure in science are often more elusive than a balance sheet.

Failure is so inherent to scientific inquiry that scientists have to carefully qualify almost every exciting discovery that comes their way, whether the recent evidence of the elusive Higgs Boson or a troubled Russian spacecraft.

More important, mistakes can lead to critical discoveries — just ask Louis Pasteur.

What is the most important accidental discovery? Research accidental or failed projects that became successful, from penicillin to Teflon. When can scientists be sure of their findings? Can they ever be certain?

The Arts

Failure, at least economic failure, can be an artist’s greatest ally. Geniuses from Vincent van Gogh to Emily Dickinson toiled in obscurity their entire lives, but the work they created is an inspiration for generations of artists who followed. Did they fail because they weren’t appreciated in their lifetimes, or did they prevail because they refused to create work on terms other than their own?

What about artists like Kurt CobainAmy Winehouse and David Foster Wallace, all of whom self-destructed before contributing all they could have to their art? Are they failures?

How does a star like Julie Taymor come back from a disaster like the musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark?”

How does commerce affect art? Do you consider artists who go commercial “sellouts”? Does that constitute failure, or is negotiating the marketplace part of the process?

What artists have used chance or failure in their work to create something wonderful?


Failure glares at politicians in each successive stage of their careers, but in the end their success can be mercurial. Spectacular failure loomed for Richard M. Nixon after he trounced Senator George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election. And even though his legacy is inescapably tarnished by Watergate, many people remember his successes while in office?

What makes a successful leader? Pick a presidential contest from history and look at what the winner accomplished vs. what the loser did once his or her White House aspirations were dashed. How did their respective legacies impact the United States and the world? To what extents are each successes or failures? Why?

You could also look at a specific piece of failed legislation and examine how that failure has impacted your community, your family, your country or the world.

Or, define success vs. failure in politics by examining the legacy of different political systems, from dictatorships to Communism. How would you judge systems like these to decide whether they are ultimately successes or failures?


How are failures in education judged? Are there schools that have “failed” by one measure, but that succeed by others? Can the same be said of teachers, or students? What metrics are used to judge such things? How fair are they? In an ideal world, how would outsiders judge schools, teachers and students?

In what circumstances do you feel the educational system has let you down? When have you failed yourself educationally? What can you learn from these mistakes?


Do a Case Study

Choose a “failure” from one of the categories above, whether an example we’ve given or one you find yourself, and use it as a case study. What constituted failure in this instance? How did those who failed react? Did anything positive come from the failure? What lessons can one learn from studying this particular example?

Create a Personal Timeline of Failure — and Its Benefits

Make a chart or timeline of your own “failures,” by your own or anyone else’s definition, for a certain period of your life, and use it to look at what resulted. For instance, if you’re creating a timeline, you might list the failure at the top of the line, then below it write about what happened as a result that failure — or what you learned because of it. When you review your timeline, do you agree that failure builds character? Why or why not?

Hold a Failure Debate

What is “failure” and what is “success”? Who decides? Choose any of the examples we’ve listed above, or supply an example of your own, and research it in order to hold a class debate in which one side takes the position that this person, company, team, product or idea was ultimately a success, and the other side takes the position that it was a failure. How does the decision about whether something succeeds or fails depend on one’s point of view?

Collect Stories of Failure to Learn Lessons

Collect stories of failure from the biographies of people you admire, from literature, from the news, and elsewhere. For example, in recent editions of The Times you might save the Arts section piece about Earl Sweatshirt, one of the teenage members of the group Odd Future who has only recently come back from a therapeutic retreat for at-risk boys — or you might clip the article about jobless young people who have become activists as a result. What common threads can you find in the stories you collect?

Create From Failure

Revisit something you’ve created and abandoned to reevaluate it. Whether a failed science experiment, a fledgling poem, story or song, a painting or photograph, a Web site, blog, or game you’ve started and given up on, reconsider what you’ve done so far. What can you keep? In what new direction might you go with the original idea? What did you learn from the process?

Research help contributed by Lily Altavena.

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