The value of failure

By Amelia Simpson, BA (Hons) '95, LLB (Hons) '97

In my role as Sub-Dean within the ANU College of Law, I’m often reminded that many of our high-achieving students are quite scared of being average at anything.  

Some go to great lengths to avoid feeling that way. I notice this in others because I was one of those people.

Studiousness, just like any other comfort zone, can hold us back. Well into my 20s, failure was unfamiliar to me because I would only try things if I had reason to believe I’d be at least pretty good at them.

Eventually though, I discovered the power of the PB – personal best – a mindset of focusing upon your own progress and not being intimidated by the prowess or success of others.

I remember when I first failed a formal test. It was an open water practical exam for a scuba diving licence. It was 20 years ago and I was woeful. I wanted the earth – or in this case the ocean – to open up and swallow me.

It was embarrassing and devastating, all at once. But it was also a big turning point, because it liberated me from my fear of failure.

I realised the idea of failure could be more fearsome than failure itself.

I didn't die of shame and that emboldened me to try other new things, and fail at some of those too. I became bolder, wiser, more open-minded and slower to judge situations and people.

Failure is an emerging buzzword in twenty-first century management theory. There’s a growing literature on ‘failing well’ – learning good stuff from it – and exploring what a truly valuable experience failure can be.

At Google’s fabled research and development arm, known ever so coolly as ‘X’, the biggest bonuses go to the employees who demonstrate how and why their projects are not going to work.

At the other end of the trendsetting spectrum, armies of executive coaches hired by the Australian Public Service are trying to sculpt ‘failure tolerant’ managers, to seed a more innovative, cohesive and resilient workforce.

So, a preparedness to stare down failure has become a skill.