Failure is the best teacher. That’s the lesson my parents always taught me. It’s also the lesson many of us have heard from our professors and bosses as we’ve navigated our professional careers so far. But how accurate is this advice? And can you ever think back to a time where you didn’t necessarily agree with it? Well, after seeing lots of successes and failures over the past year in business school, I’ve come wonder about the same question. Is failure actually good for you?
As you might imagine, there are two competing sides to the argument.
On one hand, conventional wisdom says that the best way to learn is to learn from failure. Because yoou’re more heavily invested. More emotionally connected. And think about things more intensely when everything goes wrong. Especially entrepreneurs, who have to learn because they can’t afford to make the same mistakes two times. This concept is also reinforced in business school, where almost every activity is set to have a lot of competition. And since everyone can’t win, then a lot of people have to fail. This forces you reflect on the things you didn’t do well enough, and figure out how to do it better the second time.
On the other hand, most people know that failure is also hard to take. Especially when the stakes are high and you’ve put a lot of time and effort in to pursue your the end goal. This happens every year in business school during the core classes, where only 40% can get As, meaning that 50% have to get Bs and 10% have to get Cs. And these 10% are usually very smart people. This also happens during the recruiting cycle, where people spend hours pouring over cases and studying industry trends but aren’t successful pursuing certain jobs. In some cases, failure can not only hurt emotionally, but also undermine your self-confidence. There’s been many stories about that at the top business schools, not to mention complaints from students who participate.
Upon reflection, in some cases, I wonder if people actually learn anything from failure. Maybe instead, they are worse off. And even when things end up better the second time, it’s because those who failed are simply better at trying the second time around than the first time. And so no matter whether they succeeded or failed the first time, they are better than people who haven’t done it before, but not necessarily better specifically due to failure. And even when they aren’t “actually” better the second time around, maybe other people think that they’re better so give them more support, helping them to do better the second time. In this way, the act of failure hasn’t added value.
But don’t confuse my argument. I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn when you fail. After all, in some cases failure can offer you the most unique insights that you might not have gained otherwise. But in the end, I just wonder whether creating a culture of failure, and specifically constant failure as created in business school, is actually better than a culture of success. And are MBA programs doing the right thing by setting up these scenarios where students fail, on average, a lot more often than they succeed.
I don’t know the answer. Either way, it’s an interesting debate.