"Try the rough water as well as the smooth. Rough water can teach lessons worth knowing."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Failure can be a difficult experience for many students. Abigail Lipson, Director of the Bureau of Study Counsel, points out in her essay, How to Have a Really Successful Failure, that failure has a way of "grabbing our attention and not letting go," of evoking feelings such as 'I’ll never live it down,' 'I’ll never forgive myself,' 'I wish it didn’t happen. But it did.'" It is natural to have some bad feelings about failing; however, it’s important to keep in mind that failure doesn’t have to be the end-point.

Mistakes and failures often lead to rewarding beginnings and discoveries. As Lani Guinier, the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, notes in a 2004 commencement speech at the University of Illinois, "Failure is often the only way we learn," as it helps us to focus our minds, discover what we are made of, and pushes us to innovate. By reframing how we look at failure, we can often find new opportunities for growth and change in our lives and work.

What can I do to learn from failure and be more resilient?

(Adapted from How to Have a Really Successful Failure by Abigail Lipson)

  • Consider that there is not one single path to success. Most people have met with failures over the course of their lives that have taken them down unexpected paths. When Steve Jobs dropped out of college he had no idea that his admiration for the hand-lettered posters that he saw on campus bulletin boards would have a large impact on his life. In his commencement speech at Stanford University, Jobs recalls: "Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this.” His exploration of calligraphy ultimately led to the revolutionary design of Microsoft fonts. 

  • Take time to think about and acknowledge all that you have learned from a mistake or a failure. In her 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, author J.K. Rowling said, “Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.” Our failures can often offer us valuable insights about ourselves and our ability to handle adversity.

  • Imagine your failure as though you’re telling it with a sense of pride at some point in the future. Today's failures often become tomorrow's tales of triumph. Time brings new opportunities and reflection brings new perspectives. 

  • Note that being extremely concerned about avoiding failure brings its own risks. Nicholas Molina ’07 notes in his Crimson article, The Failure of Success, that "Eighteen years of a lack of failure teaches Harvard students to avoid it at all costs; we become extremely risk-averse." He continues, "Only when we risk failure, are great gains possible."

  • Remember that our failures can help us to become better risk takers. Professor Martin A. Schwartz of the University of Virginia points out in his journal article, The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research, that the more comfortable we are with the possibility of failure, "the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries."

Image Credit

(mendhak). (2011). Immortar [Photograph]. Retrieved April 23, 2014, from:
Permission: Creative Commons, Attribute ShareAlike 3.0 Generic.