Happy International Failure Day!


All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. –Samuel Beckett

Last month, I wrote about failing small.

Last year, I urged us to mark International Failure Day.

If it’s not obvious, I’m a fan of embracing failure. I think that for many of us–maybe women especially–fear of failing holds us back from trying. Being able to separate self-worth from success at a particular thing is an important lesson. In my university work I’m struck by it in terms of the how much grades matter to the choice of one’s academic major and how much this is divided along gender lines. The short version is that women are much more grade sensitive than men, gravitating to the subjects in which we do best. Men are much more grade resilient. They’ll keep taking a subject, even if they are failing some classes, if it’s the thing they really want to do. Failing a class has a different impact on men that it does on women.

Getting over my fear of failure is part of what’s made sports fun for me as an adult. I remember taking sailing classes at Northwestern University as a graduate student and not caring if we messed up and capsized. My ego was elsewhere! Bring on failure. Likewise, that same attitude made it possible for me to give rowing a try during our ‘fittest by 50’ challenge.

Another perspective is that we should we just ditch ‘failure’ talk altogether. You haven’t failed if you capsized a sailboat. You haven’t failed if you’ve failed one class. I didn’t fail that time I missed a box jump and cut my leg on a wooden box at CrossFit. And so on. Some people find ‘failure’ talk so demoralizing and awful that we should just give it up. I’m less sure about that. I think of it as looking at a failure for what it is, seeing where it fits in the grand scheme of things, seeing what lessons can be learned from it, and moving on.

There’s been a trend in my discipline lately of posting news of rejections (grants and awards we didn’t get, journal articles turned down by reviewer 1 and 2, etc) so that social media isn’t just full of success stories. I like that too. I share some failures there but not all.

How do you feel about failure, both the actual thing and the language we use to talk about it?

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