There are three broad types of failure I have encountered in my life. The first is when failure is a built-in part of progression. We often see this sort of failure in sport. For example, I like to weight train. It is unsafe to lift heavy weights without knowing what to do when it goes wrong, so the training for the larger lifts is interwoven with training to fail those lifts. You lift only as heavy as you know how to fail safely so there is a necessary intimacy and acceptance of failure: This is failure as progress. Second is the failure that comes from the trial and error explorations of potential solutions which I encounter and evidence as part of my research into problem-solving. I watch participants in the psychology labs move ever closer to a solution bit by bit and incrementally while encountering multiple failures. This is failure as discovery. It is a Thomas Eddison approach to failure: “I haven’t failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work”.
The third is what I like to call a “sucky” failure. It doesn’t fit easily into the cultural narrative that recasts failures as learning opportunities. These failures are unexpected and unfair. No immediate and clear good comes out of these failures. There is no progression. It just sucks. It hurts and it takes time to get over it. Life is full of these sorts of failures which are rarely mentioned because we are ashamed of them. My favourite failure is one of those.
In the UK we can take our driving test at age 17. I lived in the countryside and my parents were fed up of being taxi drivers. For my 17th birthday, I received an intensive course of lessons which guaranteed that you would pass your test. I failed spectacularly; the school returned my parents’ money rather than waste more time teaching me. I got good at cycling. Then when I was pregnant with my second child, my husband bought me driving lessons, reasoning that I could not be as bad ten year’s later. And he was right. I was not as bad. Indeed, I almost passed the first time I took the test apart from driving a little too fast…That was a “learn from” failure. The next test, I buckled up and drove perfectly. I knew I had done well as we turned down the road into the test centre and the instructor had a clean sheet and a smile on his face. As we pulled into the parking lot, he turned to me: “I am very pleased to inform you…”
I don’t know what happened next. There was a slight incline to enter the car park and I think I probably took it a little too fast. Whatever the reason, the parking wasn’t as smooth as the rest of the drive. In fact, I managed to drive the car straight into the wall of the test centre. Not only that, but it hit right next to the window of the room where the examiners take their break. The window was flung open and people poured out to see what was happening. And I, 7 months pregnant, lost the plot, stepped out of the car and threw a toddler-style temper tantrum (foot stamping and all) in front of them. My husband who was waiting for me with our actual toddler swiftly took me home. Sobbing. The negative emotions I encountered at that stage were pretty overwhelming.
I sat another test a week later and passed. It was humiliating returning to the site not only of the failure but my epic tantrum. I learnt nothing about driving from the failure itself (I did not need to enact the accident to know crashing into the wall of the test centre was not a great idea). Sucky failures sometimes hurt most because there is no obvious learning – just a great mess of horrible feelings. Then several years later, my pre-teen son came home after failing at a school test he expected to pass. I told him the story of my failure, my poor behaviour and in the telling it turned from a shameful secret into a cheery anecdote.
This failure is a favourite because it is so ridiculous. To fail your driving test by driving into the test centre is a pretty unique experience. The failure taught me little about the immediate situation and served little purpose in that moment, but it did teach me that it’s okay to fail and that the pain of failing soon fades. Life would be a little less fun if we did everything perfectly; I wouldn’t be the same person I am now if I hadn’t encountered that failure. I would find it a little harder to laugh at myself. To take risks. I would also find it harder to appreciate that “sucky” failures become part of the tapestry of our life. Failures don’t have to lead to success or personal growth but they are part and parcel of what makes you…
and for that reason, they are priceless.
Bio: Dr. Wendy Ross is a researcher based in the UK. Her research area is creativity and problem solving and she uses quantitative and qualitative methods to track thinking. She has failed many times and hopes to fail a lot more!