Failure is a Better Teacher than Success
Updated: Jun 21
“Failure is not fatal. Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. It should challenge us to new heights of accomplishments, not pull us to new depths of despair. From honest failure can come valuable experience.” -William Arthur Ward, American author and teacher
We prize success over failure. You see articles and book titles with the words “success” or “succeed” splattered on bookstore shelves. However, research shows that when it comes to learning, failure may just be good for us after all. In fact, failure is a better teacher than success. Madsen and Desai (2010) discovered that the knowledge gained from our failures lasts longer than those from our successes. They advise organizations, to neither ignore nor dismiss failure but to, treat failure as a learning opportunity.
To illustrate the point, they used the flights of the 2002 space shuttle Atlantis and 2003 space shuttle Columbia. During the 2002 Atlantis flight, a piece of insulation broke off and damaged the left solid rocket booster but did not impede the mission or the program. However, there was little follow-up or investigation.
During the launching of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, another piece of insulation broke off and struck the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing. When Columbia reentered the earth’s atmosphere after a 16-day mission, “damage sustained from the foam’s impact compromised the orbiter’s thermal protection system, leading to the failure of the left wing and to the eventual disintegration of the orbiter” (Madsen & Desai, 2010, p. 451).
Tragically, all seven astronauts on board were killed. The Columbia disaster resulted in the suspension of shuttle flights and led to a major investigation resulting in 29 recommended changes to prevent future disasters.
Obviously, the point is that, while we should not fail on purpose, failure (while sometimes tragic) is an important teacher. For organizations, the advice is this: study your small failures and close calls to extract useful information instead of waiting for a major catastrophe.
“Organizational leaders should neither ignore failures nor stigmatize those involved with them; rather, leaders should treat failures as invaluable learning opportunities, encouraging the open sharing of information about them” (Madsen & Desai, 2010, p. 471).
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Organizational & Leadership Development Leader
Madsen, P. M., & Desai, V. M. (2010). Failing to learn? The effects of failure and success on organizational learning in the global orbital launch vehicle industry. Academy of Management Journal, 53(3), 451-476.