An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Felicia Wilks, Upper School director

On Friday, Upper School Director Felicia Wilks welcomed back Upper School students at the opening assembly. Following is an excerpt from her speech.

Today I want to talk to you about failure. It is something that is frequently encouraged as an essential part of learning, but failure is complex and almost never fun. So I want to share a few ideas about failure with you and give you a few ideas for how to navigate through it to get to that deeper learning that is often on the other side.

Let’s begin with the definition. Common definitions of the word failure include lack of success, falling short, and an inability to perform. And let us not forget it’s most famous usage as the letter F - the academic mark that indicates an inability to satisfactorily complete the requirements to pass a course or an assignment. I really believe that it is in it’s shorthand “F” that has given failure a bad reputation - especially among students. 

Either way, nothing about failure sounds good or fun, and yet, research and life experience say failure is an essential part of deep and lasting learning. How do we embrace this difficult thing that is so important in learning and life?

Anyone who is willing to be honest about failure will admit that it stinks. Almost all failures are painful and some failures have lasting consequences that are difficult to overcome or to recover from. In addition, because of societal inequalities, some people face obstacles others don't - which can make it more difficult for them to turn their failures into successes.

As an African American girl, I was raised to avoid failure. The stakes were too high. I already had to push against systemic racism and sexism, why make things more difficult for myself? To prepare me for these challenges, my mother taught me to play it safe and smart. So when I seriously considered auditioning for dance at the Baltimore School for the Arts for high school, I was encouraged to consider more stable options like preparing for medical school or law school. I don't begrudge my mother for this advice, however, because based on her experiences as a black woman herself, this advice was a necessary precaution.

And yet, had I stuck to just the safest, most predictable course throughout my life, I would not be here before you today and I would not have learned some of the most important lessons of my life. Even though I tried to avoid failure, it found me anyway. I learned that no matter how intelligent, how resourced, how talented, kind or careful we are, life will present each of us with challenges. These cannot be escaped and some of them translate into failures.

Back to the definition itself- also complicated is that there is more than one type of failure.

Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, Amy Edmondson writes about three types of failure, defining them as “preventable failures,” “complex failures,” and “intellectual failures.”

Preventable failures are just what they sound like - they are things we have the knowledge and ability to avoid, and yet, we don’t avoid them. For instance, we understand the concepts covered on a test, but we don’t spend enough time studying and then don’t do well on a test; or we get in trouble at home for not doing a chore we know we are expected to do. These failures are considered “bad” failures, but they are still ripe for learning, and the goal is to reduce these types of failures to the extent we can because we have the knowledge and ability to avoid them.

Complex failures are often the result of things outside of our control that prevent success. These failures are sometimes the result when we face new or unique problems. For instance, a new employee working on a task alone for the first time might be faced with something that didn’t come up in the training. Using what we know and our best judgement in these cases might still lead to failure.

Complex failures also present learning opportunities, and great ones at that. But these failures are often not preventable. When faced with unique problems, I focus on what I do know, and what I know to be ethically right. When all is said and done, if I can reflect on whether I made good decisions or not, over time, the number of unique problems I know how to face with confidence grows.

The third type of failure is what Edmondson calls “intellectual failures,” failures that are the result of experimentation or intentionally trying something that hasn’t been tried before. These intellectual failures are unlike a predictable failure that we can absolutely avoid, or a complex failure where some measure of what led up to the failure is out of our control.

In this case, you are intentionally going after a novel problem, intentionally putting yourself in a new and unique situation to test an idea. Intellectual failures are a key part of a design process. Of all of the types of failures, intellectual failures are considered “good” because when the consequences are not devastating (because they still can be), they can help those who experience them reach new positive outcomes. Also, when intellectual failures and what led up to them is shared, this information can help others save time and effort, too.

Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, has advice for us in terms of how we respond to the various types of failure we face. He writes, “we’re socially conditioned to criticize failure even when the endeavor involved a laudable level of effort and risk-taking…Instead of rewarding good results based on bad processes, we need to start rewarding bad results based on good processes.”

What this means is that rather than always focusing solely on the results, we need to consider how we arrived at those results. If you do poorly on an assignment, what decisions led up to the poor result? Did you decide not to look back at the assignment criteria before your final edit because you didn't feel like it? That would be a bad process, a preventable failure. Did your dog literally eat your assignment? If the dog went into your backpack because your sister forgot to lock him up for the night, then I’d call that a complex failure. Or did you come up with an idea that you had not heard of before, and fall short in your efforts? This could be a great failure - one of the intellectual failures that could propel you forward in your next effort. 

In fields like science and design, failure is a necessary part of the work. While researchers know that the experiments they conduct will occasionally result in a spectacular success, a large percentage of them (70% or higher in some fields) will fail.

Similarly, in so many things the saying is, nothing wagered, nothing gained; in sports, writing, sculpture, and videogames, failure is far more frequent that success and is an important building block to growth. And when it comes to video games in particular, many people even seek out this opportunity to fail and have fun doing so repeatedly.

Anyone who thinks Kyle Giersdorf, the 16 year old who won 3 million dollars in the Fortnight competition this summer didn’t spend a lot of time losing at the game before winning doesn’t understand how learning works - in video games or life. Even babies have to embrace failure to learn how to walk.

We each understand on some level the growth and innovation that intelligent risks and intelligent failures can produce. And yet, many of us are still afraid to really push ourselves into territory that is beyond what we think will safely succeed - whether that is offering an idea we aren’t sure others will agree with or trying out a new style that we think is cool but that we don’t see other people wearing. We live in a world where we experience people’s curated successes on social media and almost never see anyone’s struggles. It is not cool to fail, which can make even taking the risk seem not worth it.

The other reality is that failure is painful and often embarrassing. Most of us will avoid the lesson our failures offer if we can. Blaming others or refusing to reflect on our part in the failure, or even our unwillingness to examine our choices that led up to a failure can all get in the way of learning the sorts of lessons that can move us forward when we fall short.

In my experience, it is best to give yourself time - feel your feelings of disappointment and unhappiness, then reflect: what happened? What was in my control? What decisions did I make? Were they good decisions even if the outcome was not what I wanted or expected? How could I improve from here?

Part of the problem is that sometimes we can confuse failing at something with being a failure. This is one of the most dangerous traps and it can stop us from not only learning, but from trying.

When I was a sophomore in college, I applied for five major internships in journalism. I was granted interviews at three of the publications and left feeling pretty positive about my candidacy, even though the positions were very competitive. When I learned that I had not been selected for any of the internships, I was devastated. My first thought was, what’s wrong with me? But that wasn’t a question about where I had fallen short - it was my moment of insecurity, of questioning whether I was even good enough to write something worth reading in the first place. I wallowed there for a day or two, but thankfully, I have a great support network and a healthy does of determination, so I moved out of this place of self-doubt. Those who love me most said these places were crazy for not picking me. It was their loss. This was kind, but thoroughly inaccurate. Newsweek magazine, The Village Voice, and MTV knew how to hire, they were successful media outlets. The truth was, I had not met the mark.

When I had a bit of distance from the initial sting of not being selected, I was able to reflect: I was new to journalism, and I didn’t have a lot to show for my recent interest in the field. I had a few articles published in a small Brooklyn newspaper, but I had not chosen to write for my high school or college newspapers. I had also said in at least two interviews that I “wanted an internship where I could do more than open mail.”

I later learned this is exactly what some of these places needed someone to do! And once I did have an internship at a magazine, I opened plenty of mail - it happened to be the editor in chief’s mail, and I learned a lot. In the end, I could recognize my lack of experience, and my display of naive ambition in the interviews as key areas where I could improve. Had I stayed in the place of thinking this failure meant I was not capable of improving, I would never have continued to pursue a career in journalism or anything else. 

Not all failures lead to success at the thing that failed. But if you believe in your ability to find solutions, to grow and to learn, you will succeed. To be clear, you may not be successful at what you set out to accomplish, but you will continue to move forward. My wish for each of you is that you have the confidence and discipline to invest in yourself and your ideas, but the humility to acknowledge your errors, and to grow from them.

In her book, The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh writes, “Good mistakes unlock learning because they focus our attention on a key step or insight that may have previously been out of focus.”

I hope you all take intelligent risks this year - that you test ideas and have the courage and the confidence to focus on learning when one of your new ideas fails. Stretch yourself and practice the discipline of honest self-reflection. And even when you have to abandon an idea, don’t doubt your ability to learn, grow, and succeed.