The Courage to Fail

By     Aug 14, 2014

Several years ago, while trying to broaden my culinary skill, I had a dear friend over to dinner and I tried a new recipe. I was attempting to make crepes with a small, stainless-steel pan. I’m pretty sure I missed an ingredient in the recipe, the pan was significantly too small to make the delicate, thin crepe, it stuck to the pan and cooked a little too long to make the perfect texture. The crepes ended up rubbery, thick and completely disgusting! My friend, who was a gracious guest, offered that we could grab a bite out instead and call it a wash. What was an epic failure in the kitchen ended up being a delightful evening for both of us and a memory we now laugh about.

I frequently think back on that evening when I’m growing concerned about failing on a project at work. It’s not easy for most of us to fail. We grow up in a world of consequences and standardized tests and we frequently only have one good shot to get something right. But as Dr. Daniele Ofri offered in her recent contribution to the article Mistakes I Made at Work: 6 Successful Women on the Art of Failing, “We make a mistake, but we are not the mistake.”

So, what does it take for us to be comfortable with failure at work? One fundamental element is understanding whether your value inside the organization is based only on successful performance. Of course we want to feel successful in our jobs. I always want to produce the best possible solutions for my projects, and sometimes that means taking a risk to try a new idea. My worth in an organization is the collection of all the skills I have to offer, all of my previous experience and insight gained throughout my life. I’m not willing to sacrifice the quality of my work just for a guaranteed win. When I’m afraid to fail at work, I pause, and remind myself of each of these personal truths.

A strong, open and positive relationship with your supervisor is critical to becoming comfortable with failure. My first major professional failure occurred during my first year of teaching middle school choir. Our winter concert, performed in the evening for all the student’s parents, didn’t go as well as I had hoped. The students performed to the best of their ability, but the music I had chosen for them was too hard. I just didn’t understand my students as an audience. Afterwards, my supervisor reflected to me the hard truths of the evening. Some of it was difficult to hear, but I knew she was right. I hadn’t prepared them to feel successful. I took that information, and after nursing my hurt feelings for a week, funneled it into doing a better job on the spring concert. My supervisor understood she was making me a stronger employee, and the program stronger as a whole, when she let me fail safely and without repercussion.  She gave me the opportunity to try again and learn from the failure and the process. As a result, our spring concert was much more successful.

How does this apply to arts and culture? As organizations in the field find new ways to innovate, small, controlled experiments that might lead to failure can be a safe way to get there. Jeff DeGraff, Professor of Management at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan describes how this type of failure built into an innovation process can be used to accelerate change in an organization. If your cultural organization needs a jumpstart, perhaps innovation through failure is the place to find it.


Throughout my studies in undergraduate and graduate school, I never had a teacher tell me it was okay to make mistakes or fail in my job. I think we often learn that through the school of hard knocks. But the knocks don’t feel so hard, and the failures don’t feel so big when we when we have a chance to learn from it and try again.  It’s important to recognize that failing at something doesn’t make you a failure.

What failures have you learned from?