Does Failure Have Benefits? Faculty Discuss

Professors quote notable people like J.K. Rowling and Jimmy Buffett to reflect on the fruits of failure.

Illustration by Getty Images © UZENZEN

Does Failure Have Benefits? Faculty Discuss

Professors quote notable people like J.K. Rowling and Jimmy Buffett to reflect on the fruits of failure.

Compiled by Zach Martino

Pamela Frable
Associate Professor of Nursing
Harris College of Nursing & Health Sciences

Whether failure withers and breaks us or nurtures and strengthens us depends on the meaning we give it. Failure offers opportunities to reflect on what did and did not work, understand how we contributed to the outcome, and discover and create better actions and results. Every time we fail and find a way to stand and move forward, we practice resilience. Every time we fail and find a way to try again — differently — to begin anew, we practice perseverance. Every time we practice resilience and perseverance, we practice optimism, the hope that we and the world can be better and more successful. Failure can teach us that the success we envision is not always the success we live, and through that failure we remain open to opportunities we may not have imagined.

Yuri Strzhemechny
Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy
College of Science & Engineering

One can benefit from a failure only if the failure is perceived as beneficial. Grief over failure should be as short as possible, and then begins the recovery. As a faculty member, I face microfailures quite often and try to gain from them as much as possible. A research experiment fails to achieve its goal? Learn something new about the fundamentals behind the studied phenomena and modify your approach. The submitted manuscript was returned with a harsh criticism? Don’t blame the reviewers. Try to look at your writing from a different perspective and address the weaknesses. The students in your class are not performing on the required level? Switch your teaching tactics. Self-assess your effectiveness. While failures are numerous, the positive attitude has to be the same every time.

Frank Thomas
Professor of Counseling
College of Education

I recall J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard when she said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case you fail by default.” Failure enlightens; it is priceless systems feedback when results inform future individual efforts. But I think it is important to remember failure may be a social experience. Failure can tell you how a system is opposing you. People of minority status experience this every single day. So, failure can build personal resilience and teach you about yourself, but it can also reveal how your world attempts to limit you. Instead of “try, try again,” I prefer “be like water” when facing failure. Flow around obstacles. Wear down barriers.

Lewis Glaser
Professor and Chair of Graphic Design
College of Fine Arts

Albert Einstein said, “Failure is success in progress.” Failure allows us to learn. We do not learn by repeating what we’re already good at. We can learn without failure — to an extent. But being willing to take chances and push the envelope is how we make quantum discoveries. Thomas Edison summed it up: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Paul King
Professor of Communication Studies
Bob Schieffer College of Communication

The only people who don’t ever fail are those who aren’t really trying to succeed. I hope that my students won’t be content with taking only the small, safe steps in life. It’s when you reach high and chance failure that you can change the world.

Karen Nelson
Professor of Accounting
Neeley School of Business

“Failure” is weighted with so many negative connotations, but it is really just an attempt that did not turn out as expected. When you succeed, you rarely question why. But when you fail, it provides an opportunity for introspection — to reassess your expectations, to recalibrate your actions and to recommit to your goals.

Rob Garnett
Associate Dean
John V. Roach Honors College

When we fall down or run into walls, we’re forced (or at least allowed) to ask questions: What happened? What more could/should I have done? Was I treated fairly? Does this mean it’s time to cut my losses and walk away, or do I need to dig deeper, seek help, or both? Like Jimmy Buffett in “Margaritaville,” we often start out thinking that others are to blame but eventually realize that we ourselves played a large role in creating the negative outcome. Above all, we gain an opportunity to stop and reflect, to regroup and grow — a chance to learn.