How many times have you been reminded of the value of failure?
This past week, while procrastinating for studying for midterms, I somehow found myself in a YouTube hole watching a collection of the “best commencement speeches of all time.” I’d say practically three-quarters of them included a message about the benefit of failure. Oprah Winfrey may have put it best at Harvard University’s graduation in 2013, when she said, “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.” Or Denzel Washington at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011: “Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success.” Or maybe JK Rowling, another moderately successful person, who explained that hitting “rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
I can’t remember exactly what my own high school graduation speaker said, but it was something about not letting the fear of failure hold you back. Economists frequently reiterate the trope, “Fail fast, fail often,” to commend the value of trial and error. Today, at a workout class, an instructor screamed, “I want you to fail!” at least 10 times as the class gasped for air in a line of treadmills. Expecting, confronting and moving on from failure is undoubtedly good advice — it builds character, teaches tenacity, etc. But the lesson is overplayed. We get it. We’re going to fail. No one is perfect. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking.
So then, why is this message drilled into our heads time and time again? Why are some of the most successful people in this world, ironically, so focused on the value of failure? Is it just because failure forces you to bounce back, find resilience or be trampled by those treading at your heels? Is it to counter the fact that many of us grew up “winning” participation awards and smothered in compliments from our parents who glowingly assured us that we “could do anything we put our minds to”?
The subtlety hidden in these odes to failure is that the periods of defeat were temporary. Almost always, the people who celebrate their failures do so after the dust has settled, and they’ve emerged triumphantly in even greater success. Because, no surprise, for those that don’t escape failure, but continue to drown in its misery, there’s no radiant light at the end of the tunnel. With this in mind, failure can only be celebrated in hindsight. Therefore, I don’t think failure shouldn’t be praised as something to embrace. Failure may be inevitable and important for growth, but it isn’t good in and of itself. The only positive thing about failure is overcoming it.
Contact Elizabeth Dunn at eldunn14 ‘at’ stanford.edu.