Failing Successfully

By: Neil Mufson
As you might remember, last summer our faculty and staff read Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  Knowing about my belief that parents and teachers need to help children develop resilience and grit, a colleague recently shared with me an article entitled “How To Fail Successfully,” which was written by Liza Mundy and appeared in the women’s magazine More. 

In the article, Mundy traces the recent career of Maria Klawe, the current President of Harvey Mudd College, who made a number of missteps in her early years at the renowned, extremely competitive California college that focuses on math, engineering, and science.  Despite a very successful career as a mathematician and as dean at Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, Klawe advocated for a very aggressively paced set of changes at her well-regarded new institution.  A lightning quick thinker, she was frequently misjudged by colleagues who interpreted her quick responses as lack of consideration.  The fact that she would paint watercolors during meetings in order to slow her mind was often misunderstood as rudeness!  However, after proposing change after change during a nearly “fatal” first year, instead of resigning or being fired, Klawe took stock of where things went wrong.  She then deliberately set out to transform herself as a leader to one who paces changes, listens actively, interrupts rarely, and thinks reflectively, strategically, and collaboratively.  Mundy points out that “because she accepted criticism on her first-year performance and set about transforming herself as a leader, [faculty and board members] came to trust her immensely.”

Klawe stated, “I’m a big believer in failure.  I don’t know any successful person who hasn’t failed a lot of times.”  Mundy points out that there is movement afoot in our culture that sees failure as “far from being something shameful or harmful, … [but] as an experience to be valued and even sought.”  She notes that The Harvard Business Review recently devoted a whole issue to “failure as a driver of creativity, urging managers to create cultures in which failure is seen as inevitable — even desirable.”
Of course the kind of failure that the academics are advocating is the right kind of failure, not just your run-of-the mill, sloppy, or unmotivated kind of failure.  Yes, that kind of failure can be learned from, too, but the kind of failure being promoted is the kind that results from reaching high, from trying to break existing barriers, from striving for new ground — either personally or organizationally.  Even when giving one’s best effort, even when meeting one’s responsibilities, and even when pursuing lofty goals, failure can indeed ensue.  That kind of failure can be valuable if we take the time to analyze what we learn from it and incorporate that learning into future actions.  That kind of analysis, resilience, and grit is what turns failure into success — and that is ultimately what most people and organizations seek.  So the trick is stretching enough to reach new heights and not being put off by the risk of failing.  Analyzing one’s failures and then adjusting course can lead to greater successes than by aiming low or not tolerating failure.

Sometimes we as parents shield our children from experiencing consequences or falling short of the mark.  Mundy’s article reinforces that when we do this, we inadvertently rob them of significant growth opportunities and perhaps even more meaningful success.  We negatively impact the development of grit, resilience, and perseverance.

Not only has Maria Klawe grown inordinately by learning from her failures; about a decade later, Harvey Mudd College under her leadership is regarded as having gone, in leadership guru Jim Collins’s words, “from good to great.”  Plus, she just received the “2014 Women of Vision Award” as one of three women recognized this year “who have made exceptional contributions to innovation, leadership, and social impact in the technology field.” Not bad for a “failure”!

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