teaching failure


  • This experiment has made me realise how bad I am at being bad at things. I’ve spent my whole adult life ensuring I never have to do any of the many things I’m hopeless at.” – Lucy Kellaway, “Game Theory

You can use ‘failure’ to teach ‘leadership’, but can you teach ‘failure’? The question lies at the heart of much bigger questions. An age old question is whether people are ‘born leaders’. An entire system of higher education – ‘Business Schools’ – was established on the premise that you can ‘teach management’. On my premise that what lies at the heart of both ‘Leadership’ and ‘Management’ is approaches to risk (and risk means the possibility of failure as well as success), then enriching someone’s understanding and dealing with failure is an essential competency to either.

Learning how to fail is not a “paint by number” enterprise (much to the disappointment of Leader wannabes shelling out for counting business guru books). It’s like training to be an athlete or an artist. Yes, a teacher and/or coach can help with tricks and tips. But fundamentally, growth comes from constant exercise. Constant exercise of failure.

As with so many aspects of education, digital tools offer an intriguing training ground for failure especially some innovative new video games. Joel McCoy, in his account of GameLoop Boston 2011 (session “Embracing Failure in Game Narrative”) offers up the example of some new gaming approaches which not only enable repeated failure, but encourage it…

  • “By rewarding what the player may consider failure, you open the world of your game to be interacted with in a free and playful manner. You instil a sense of possibility, and even wonder, while removing player frustration and stress associated with slavishly doing what they guess you intend as the ‘right’ thing, to what they guess is your standard of expected performance.”