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Dare to Fail

by Craig M. Klugman


  1. The fact of becoming exhausted or running short, giving way under trial, breaking down in health, declining in strength or activity, etc.
  2. The act of failing to effect one’s purpose; want of success; an instance of this. (Oxford English Dictionary 2015, entry 67663)

There is not enough failure in our modern world. I am not talking about the kind of failure that comes from not trying or being neglectful, but rather the failure that comes from working hard to achieve a goal and not making the mark.

If one does not fail, then one has not tried to excel. If you succeed at 100% of everything you do, then you have stayed within your safe zone—of areas of excellence you already know. To fail means to reach beyond what you know you can do, to stretch your skills and abilities, and to try to achieve more. And yes, we often miss that mark. But that failure motivates us to try again, to approach the task differently, and to become more than we currently are.

In a 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review, the author Amy C. Edmondson suggests that there is a spectrum of failure. Type I failures are the fault of the individual who attempted the task. Such failure may be caused by deviance (violating a practice or process), inattention, or lack of ability. Type II failures are externally caused because of the way the task is designed or explained: a faulty process, a too challenging task, or a complex process. And Type III failures are caused by a lack of certainty of what will happen, testing a hypothesis, or exploratory testing of an idea where there is no known or expected outcome. Type I failures are where the individual can learn to change behavior, perspective, or approach. Type II failures are where there is a structural problem—perhaps the assigned task does not work. Type III is science in action—trying to figure out what we simply do not know.

In the fictional world of Star Trek, all students at Starfleet Academy must undergo the Kobayashi Maru test. This exercise is where a student has to rescue a civilian ship during a simulated battle. If anything goes wrong, an interspecies war could erupt. The catch to this exercise is that it cannot be won. The program is set to always present obstacles so that the task of rescue always leads to the destruction of one or more ships. At times, I think the best lesson I could give my students would be to develop a Kobayashi Maru that they must all take and fail.

For example, I recently met with a student who withdrew from a class because he felt he was failing. With nearly one-third of the term to go, the student simply gave up because the class was “too difficult.” He blamed the department for requiring this course, the instructor for being obtuse, and the TA for not being responsive. He had a Type I failure but tried to claim it was a Type II failure. Since the course has been taught by the same instructor for 10 years and thousands of students were able to pass, it is unlikely that Type II is at fault. The student is the product of an era in which people are given rewards simply for showing up. Every member of a sports league gets an award for participation. While this does encourage people to participate, what it does not do is prepare them for the inevitability of failing at some point in life. Failure is always someone else’s faulty, never theirs. Countless students have told me they deserve a better grade because “they showed up to all of the classes and turned in the work.” Others have told me, “I deserve a better grade because I always get As.” They feel they should be rewarded simply because of who they are, irrespective of effort, success, or ability.

There are national discussions about “grade inflation,” because students complain too much when they do not get As and it is simpler to make assignments easier to grade less rigorously. The truth is that failure is inevitable and by preventing our youth from having such an experience, when it happens, they lack the skills to cope. Coping does not mean begging your instructor for a better grade, or blaming others—“The teacher is just too hard” or “The instructor did not give me the attention that I needed” (in a class of 200 students). Failure is examining where your efforts may not have been productive, determining where you fell short, and making a plan to do better next time.

In the world of science, this leads to the problem of positivity—negative results are unlikely to be published. Type III failures are wonderful gifts to scientists. But not publishing unsuccessful experiments wastes resources by not informing others about dead ends. This leads to a waste of time, resources, and effort. Given that science is experimental, one expects most experiments to fail. The failed experiments force us to think of new ideas and avenues for exploration. By knowing what does not work, we gradually find out what does work.

Failure teaches character and how to deal with adversity. Without this early exposure to failure, students walk away and give up before they can make a mistake or learn from what they did wrong. When they do fail, they do not know how to cope and thus give up rather than seeing this experience as an opportunity to do different next time. Failure also keeps a student from taking a course in a new discipline or at a higher level than he or she has previously.

Failure is the way to success. If you do not fail at some point, then you have not tried hard enough. Failures are gifts. In medicine, we often view failure as “an avoidable error” which indicates either a Type I or a Type II failure. The first requires better training, testing, and oversight of learners. The second type requires a systems analysis and quality improvement. Both of these are key aspects of the current medical care enterprise. And although people’s lives can be injured or even ended by such failures, it is only through the failures that learning and improvement can occur.

“Dare to fail” is a motto I tell my students. In medicine, the repercussions of failure are high—morbidity, mortality, and liability. But in the classroom, the repercussions of failure are low—a bad grade, an unsuccessful assignment. School at any level should encourage failure that demonstrates students reaching beyond their known abilities. Because once they go into science or medicine, the inability to deal with failure could mean walking out in the middle of a surgery that is not going to go well or abandoning an experiment that is not succeeding rather than figuring out why it does not work. Our successes as individuals, as professionals, and as a society are built on the shoulders on failure.

We fail. We get up. We analyze. We try again. For James T. Kirk, failing the Kobayashi Maru was not acceptable to him, even though everyone failed it. Instead, he hacks the computer program so that he can win. He misses the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson. If one is willing to cheat to succeed in a school assignment, then he or she may be willing to cheat when the stakes are higher as a professional. Eventually others will suffer from this hubris—future students, future patients, and society.

The best thing we can teach our students is how to fail.

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