Failure – let’s start talking about it

Failure Quote


Hey there! How are you? Its Friday and I am writing about failure!

You might be thinking failure is strange topic to choose for a “Student Health and Well-being” blog. Not that long ago I would have agreed with you.

But a colleague sent me a link to an interesting article from the New York Times – which describe the activities of a number of Universities in the US who are embracing stories of failure and rejection as a way of building student resilience.

It makes sense. Failure and rejection are an unavoidable part of life. At university, there are many opportunities for failure and rejection: assignments, exams, friends and romantic relationships, jobs/finances, work/life balance, parental or cultural expectations. It is inevitable we will fail, screw-up and make bad decisions.

Yet, even though we kinda all know that, the pressure to be perfect, well-rounded, capable, productive, popular and happy is ever present. University life and the job market that follows are competitive environments. As a result, we are trying to build amazing resumes, fill our time with meaningful activities, and paint this picture of perfection for everyone to see on social media.

This makes for an incredibly fragile state of affairs. The pressure to be perfect leaves no room for failure, so when it inevitably happens, it can be incredibly upsetting. The nature of the failure might be really minor (e.g. missed a mobile phone payment) but it shows us how fragile the line between success and failure is. In the absence of seeing or hearing about the failures of others (and lets face it, we all try to show to the outside world that we have our shit together), the risk is we think we are the only ones failing.

So what is the antidote?

It seems the approach of a number of US Universities/Colleges is to encourage staff and students to wear their experiences of rejection and failure proudly; as proudly as they would talk about their successes. They get students to write stories, make videos, ask questions of staff, and attend thought provoking workshops dealing honestly with the trials and tribulations of being a student.

Want to see some of those stories? Want to see students and staff talk about their less glamorous moments?

The Penn Faces website features “stories of successes and failures, ups and downs, hardships and self- discoveries, in order to foster resilience and create more honest and open dialogue on Penn’s campus – – This is probably the site I would start with.

The Resilience Project at Stanford “combines personal storytelling, events, programs, and academic skills coaching to motivate and support students as they experience the setbacks that are a normal part of a rigorous education –

Smith College runs a variety of ‘Failing Well” programs ‘dedicated to the discussion of failure, risk taking and mistakes’. –

Harvard’s ‘Success-Failure Project’ seeks to ‘create opportunities for discussion, reflection, understanding, and creative engagement regarding issues of success and failure. –

Should we start similar conversations here at Flinders?

I’ll explore this further in future posts.

As usual, feel free to comment below, abuse me on Twitter (@Dr_Furber), contact me on Skype (search for ‘eMental Health Project Officer Gareth’), or email me (gareth.furber{at}


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2 thoughts on “Failure – let’s start talking about it

  1. Hi, this topic is close to my heart, it is something that I have worked with training young apprentices for years. When your employer is watching and every mistake you make with materials or setting out costs money, it adds an extra layer to failure which often leads to procrastination and fear of decision making. I restructured the early training of these 18 – 25-year-old apprentices to factor in early and often failures. Often completing a task that they believed they could already do to industry standard. Apprentices then self and peer assessed the results of the task with respect. This highlighted flaws in techniques, hand and eye coordination and skills and produced failures in quality and execution. They then analysed what they had learned from these failures, identified the gaps in guild/trade knowledge in a safe environment where it was ok to make mistakes. (No costs to the employer) The end resulting improvements after reworking the training, assessment and instruction was that apprentices became trained to industry standard in all but speed in 5-6 weeks instead of 8-10 weeks. They were more confident, engaged and skilled in a shorter time frame and became more valuable to their employers. I also noticed that they were less hesitant when working and making decisions, not as hard on themselves when things went wrong and more likely to ask for help early. I was very pleased with the outcomes of this approach and have used it in all areas of my training and assessment design and delivery. Thanks for posting this topic. Cheers Rob Beckett

    1. That is a really good example Rob.

      I’d be keen to chat with you more about how students can self-create opportunities for failure, self-reflection and improvement, using that apprenticeship preparation idea as a base.


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