Failure is Not the Other ‘F’ Word

April 16, 2015

By Samantha Martin

Samantha MartinWe train students to learn from failure abroad, while we ourselves are feeling afraid to fail at work. We coach students on how to spot a “teachable moment,” like misspeaking in another language, committing a social blunder, or missing the bus. We tell them how to cope with failure using humor, curiosity, and humility.

Yet where are we, as international educators, given permission to try and fail?

We can’t learn from failure when it’s never okay to fail. An example that comes to mind is being asked to produce new results without permission to try a new approach or tool. Similarly, the underlying message of “this is the way it’s always been done” buries new ideas before they even have a chance to emerge.

To be clear, failure as a result of ignorance, negligence, or irresponsibility is not the type of failure I’m exploring here (though all failure can be instructive). The type of failure I’m referring to starts with the courage to try something new in the face of uncertainty. I face this every day with my team as a former education abroad advisor and founder of a new international education technology company.

Here’s the joyful truth about failure: the part that “didn’t work” is only a part of the story. On the other side is a better solution, one that was previously hidden behind speculation, convention, and fear.

It’s time to reclaim failure as a part of your personal and professional development. Start with these three approaches.

1. If you want a new result, try something new. Failure is ahead, and so are new results!

Certain sectors of professionals, like designers, view failure as an important part of every eventual solution. In an online design thinking course, University of Virginia professor Jeanne Liedtka introduced a simple concept: “Fail earlier to succeed sooner.”

Designers expect to be wrong many times before they are right. Rather than using historical data and rigorous analysis to devise the big, new, and perfect solution, designers first engage with the individuals involved, present a clear and broad understanding of the problem or problems, and then go through a process of forming, testing, and reforming solutions.

We don’t have to be designers to learn from them. We too can practice a form of trial and error learning in our advising, outreach, training, and processes.

2. Make failure a normal topic of conversation.

It may seem counterintuitive or ill-advised to talk about failure at work or in everyday conversations, but isn’t it more unrealistic to act as if things can and should always go as planned? In her series “The Power of Vulnerability,” researcher Brené Brown recounts how she is frequently asked to speak at large companies as part of the professional development training. Corporate leaders often ask her to focus her talk on creativity and avoid all that “shame and vulnerability stuff,” claiming that people don’t want to dwell on such negativity.

Brown points out that creativity cannot exist without vulnerability. It is an inherently vulnerable process. The organizations that thrive are those that make space for creativity, vulnerability, and failure. When it’s unsafe to try and fail, stagnation is sure to follow.

3. Use “effective” or “ineffective,” rather than “success” or “failure.”

About 6 weeks ago I realized that framing actions and results as effective or ineffective removes the judgement and shame that can be felt with the word “failure” and it also honors the intention of the doer as positive. For example, ask “was my approach effective or ineffective?” as opposed to “did I succeed or fail?”

This framework also leads to more nuanced reflection. It’s more common to ask “did this project succeed or fail?” but richer insights are in store for those who ask questions like, “were the outcomes from this project effective or ineffective? How so? Why?”

Give yourself permission to fail, in the same way you want your students to practice learning from their failures abroad. It’s not easy to submit to the unknown but it may be more painful to remain in a predictable circumstance. Don’t let a single failure opportunity pass you by.

How do you learn from failure? Join me on Thursday, May 28, from 9:00 a.m.–9:45 a.m. for my presentation, “Failure is Not the Other ‘F’ word. Confront Your Fear of Failing and Remove Personal Barriers to Lifelong Learning,” in the Career Center located in the Expo Hall. Let’s continue the conversation.


Samantha Martin is the chief information officer and a founder at Project Travel, a technology company and community of students and international educators. She is the product lead for creating experiences for educational travelers and administrators through an online platform called Via. Her experiences as a Gilman and Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar inspired her to begin her career in international education in 2006. She has worked as a study abroad advisor at State University of New York at New Paltz and a program coordinator with International Education Programs at Jacksonville University.


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