Failure In Business School

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.

Monday, May 23rd, 2011 Business School, Careers, Leadership

2 Comments to Failure In Business School

Jared F.
May 24, 2011

Hi Jeremy,

Long-time reader, first-tim commenter. I’ve loved your blog and followed it religiously, but since my recent failure in getting into b-school I’ve never had a reason to post. This blog entry changed that for me. On the one hand Im crushed, I thought I was going to get into HBS and, with my most recent rejection from Haas, I now feel like a no-good loser. However, after reading your post I’m determined to learn from this setback so that I can be as successful as possible in the future. In fact, I decided to forego re-taking the GMAT so that I can concentrate on a new company that I would like to form. It’s very eco-friendly: essentially I want take used animal waste and recycle it into baby food. I’m not sure about FDA regulations but I think this can make a lot of money. Anyway, my renewed focus only reinforces my belief in your failure theory.

Here’s my question: do you think we should seek out failure? Perhaps we should look for safe opportunities to throw in the towel simply for the learning opportunity. For instance, the other day I ordered a skinny cafe latte, but I only got a regular. I was determined to speak to my barista and inform her of the problem, but instead I decided to just take the drink that was given to me. In the process, I learned that one must pick his battles, and that sometimes in life you must take the mulligan.

What do you think?

Jeremy C Wilson
May 31, 2011

Hi Jared,

Thanks so much for your comment. I am very sorry to hear about the results from your business school applications. I realize that it’s a long emotional process. I also realize that it’s not perfect and that i can be hit and miss sometimes. Either way, I’d be happy to chat with you about strategies next year, if you decide to reapply in the future.

That said, I’m glad you’ve bounced back a bit. After all, that’s what great entrepreneurs are made of. Right? Further, I’m glad that you are inspired by your new entrepreneurial goals you want to go after. In my experience, sometimes these types of goals are the best possible motivators. I’d be interested to hear more about it.

And finally, in terms of your question re: seeking out failure – stay tuned! I’ll get back to you on that.

All the best,

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Jeremy C Wilson is a JD-MBA alumni using his site to share information on education, the social enterprise revolution, entrepreneurship, and doing things differently. Feel free to send along questions or comments as you read.


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The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect the views or position of Kellogg, Northwestern Law, the JD-MBA program, or any firm that I work for. I only offer my own perspective on all issues.
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