In Praise of a Little Failure
By Guest Blogger Paul Anglin
For students, and especially for business students preparing for a final exam in economics, final exam time is a time to be tested. You will be assessed, numbered and maybe found wanting. This posting aims to tell you that failure can be a good thing and to suggest how to make it better.
J.K. Rowling, who is now seen as being extraordinary successful, once offered an interesting discussion to students graduating from Harvard University about the fringe benefits of failure . As has been widely noted, Babe Ruth is famous for his home runs even if he struck out more times than he hit a home run. Thomas Edison noted that success is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration; I think that the perspiration is caused by the many failures which precede most successes. Seth Godin recognizes the difference between a “failure” and a “mistake”
So, it is important to fail for the right reason. Perhaps it is obvious but should be stated: failure is easy. If you do not prepare, if you are careless, if you are so arrogant as to think that you already know the answer or if lots of other reasons apply then you may not succeed.
If it is easy for you to fail then a failure, by itself, wastes everybody’s time. If you do not try then it is like the little child who claims that he or she could be a professional athlete except that “I don’t really want all of that fame or money”. Because it is expected, it is not surprising and, therefore, it provides little insight.
Sometimes, hopefully rarely, an instructor gives grades arbitrarily and it does not really matter what a student does. That situation is a real problem for a university. But, learning is a shared responsibility and what seems arbitrary to a student may represent the kind of confusion which needs to be resolved before advancing.
A wasted failure is evident in the answers to many of the questions asked on most tests given to first year students: most of the questions are relatively easy and the answers were emphasized in class because they are a common source of confusion in and out of class. In this case, and in spite of how much you might want to be active in something, a failure sends a powerful, useful and socially useful signal to the other side of the market.
So, how to maximize the benefits of a possible failure? First, eliminate the possibility of the easy failure. Learn all of the simple stuff. Work out problems whose solutions are known. Identify situations where the conventional wisdom does not apply because the solution is not feasible or because the typical justification of that solution uses something that is not relevant in an unusual situation. In other words, study. It is possible that you may still fail after doing all that work. But if you fail then you learned something that could not have been learned any other way.
Failure for the right reason should be praised because of another reason familiar from an economics class: Opportunity Cost. Your time is valuable and can be used in many ways; a failure at one activity does not mean a failure at all activities. A good failure is an early signal to change course into something more appropriate. If you fail one exam or even five exams then you may be better suited to study something else: at the University of Guelph in April 2012, final exams are offered in 85 courses designated as 1xxx and in 166 more courses designated as 2xxx. With so many course choices, why have a meaningless failure on your transcript? Make failure work for you!