Is Failure Really a Better Teacher Than Success?
Contrary to popular opinion, failure may undermine rather than promote learning.
Posted Dec 30, 2019
It’s a widely accepted truism that “failure is a better teacher than success.” We’re all familiar with the inspiring tales of people who failed again and again but built upon the lessons learned from that failure to achieve their long-sought goal eventually. The story of Thomas Edison failing thousands of times in his effort to invent the incandescent light bulb, and then famously proclaiming, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Or James Dyson going through 5,126 failed prototypes—and his entire life savings—on his way to developing the vacuum cleaner that made him a billionaire. Or Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team, and using the mental image of the team roster without his name on it as motivation to become… well, Michael Jordan.
These and countless other such examples remind us again and again of the power of failure as a motivating force for success. Why is it, then, that when failure presents us with a teachable moment, so few of us actually learn anything useful from it? Given the ubiquity of failure in human experience, one would expect the world to be teeming with Edisons, Dysons, and Jordans, but faced with the kind of failure that propelled these people to greatness, the vast majority of us are more likely to sulk than to soar. Recent research conducted at the University of Chicago explored the popular notion of failure as a teacher and found that, while failure may indeed provide a teachable moment, the act of failing in and of itself can undermine our ability to learn anything from experience.
In a series of studies covering different professional, linguistic, and social domains, participants answered binary questions and were then presented with either success feedback (i.e., were told they answered correctly) or failure feedback (were told they answered incorrectly). Later, they took a test consisting of questions on which they had received feedback to determine which type of feedback—success or failure—produced a better learning result.
In one study, telemarketers answered 10 multiple-choice trivia questions (with two possible answers each) about customer satisfaction and customer service. In another study, participants were presented with pairs of script symbols and asked to guess which of the two symbols had meaning in an invented language. Another study replaced the linguistic content of script symbols with social content, presenting participants with a “relationship game” in which they were asked to guess which one of two pictured couples were engaged.
In each of the studies, participants who received failure feedback scored lower on follow-up tests than did the participants who received success feedback, even though the information content was the same in both cases (each question has only two possible answers). Being faced with their failure to answer some of the questions correctly undermined their ability to learn from the experience, as compared to the participants whose results were presented in terms of correct answers—or success.
A follow-up study was conducted to explore the connection between perceived failure on the testing and participants’ failure to learn from that failure, and ego emerged as the likely culprit. Failure feedback undermined participants’ motivation to learn by threatening their self-esteem and, in the process, causing them to shut down their attention and stop processing information. Participants didn’t learn from their failure because they refused to listen to it since doing so would have required them to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that they had failed.
Any teacher will admit that the best lesson plan is only as effective as the motivation levels of the students in the classroom. While failure is an indisputably fine teacher, offering more useful information in many cases than success, it all too often falls on deaf ears, undermining the motivation of its students (i.e., us) by threatening our self-esteem. We very often don’t learn from our failures for the simple reason that failing bruises our egos, and we withdraw from the proverbial playing field before any further damage can be done to our self-image.
This is not to say that those who do profitably learn from failure are immune to ego threats. Michael Jordan locked himself in his room and cried when he found out he didn’t make the varsity roster. When he left the room, however, he didn’t hang up his shoes and retreat from the basketball court. He set his ego aside and let that failure teach him everything he needed to know to achieve his dream of becoming (arguably) the greatest basketball player of all time.
Everyone who tries anything fails at some time or another, and each of our failures has something valuable to teach us. But unless we can swallow our pride and pay attention to these lessons, as Michael Jordan, Thomas Edison, and James Dyson did, we will fail to learn anything at all from failure, and that, according to the authors of the study, is “the greatest failure of all.”
Eskreis-Winkler, Lauren, and Ayelet Fishbach. “Not Learning From Failure—the Greatest Failure of All.” Psychological Science, vol. 30, no. 12, 2019, pp. 1733–1744., doi:10.1177/0956797619881133
“Michael Jordan Didn't Make Varsity-At First.” Newsweek, 25 Apr. 2016, www.newsweek.com/missing-cut-382954.
Whelan, Keith. “11 Famous Failures That Led to Success (And the Lessons They Teach).” Wise Bread, 20 May 2014, www.wisebread.com/11-famous-failures-that-led-to-success-and-the-lessons-they-teach.