Failure is a success


“In this world of perfection I hope you will make many mistakes,

for in the making of mistakes you are making you.”



Jacqueline Mary Phillips


This is a strong statement which evokes many fearful thoughts in many people. Indeed, living with this powerful belief myself prevented me from trying new things or even trying to do my best- whether it was doing school work or learning new skills. I did not learn to ride a bicycle till I was in my 40s!


In my line of work, the success of students, and thereby their institution, is identified by how ‘successful’ the students are academically, as measured by their examination and other assessment results. This happens everywhere no matter if the pupil attends school in rural China or in urban London. The funding for schools and universities is often allocated according to ‘league’ tables which fundamentally rely on the results of such assessments, subject to all sorts of weightings designed to account for influences such as family wealth and geographical location. “But we need some kind of tool to assess how well these educational establishments are doing”, I hear you say.


In my 30 years of working in HEI I have met many talented, motivated and dedicated students. Inevitably, one day one of them might come to see me, head hanging low, saying how they have failed their course and that “they can’t do it”. “OK”, I say, “so how did you get here today? How did you get into University?” They look at me as if I have three heads! They then proceed to tell me how they got here and their past achievements. Then I ask, “so you are a failure then?” and the response comes, “No… not really.”


I read in THS recently that Lino Guzzella, president of Switzerland’s ETH Zurich, said that failure is more important than success “because in success you usually learn very little but in failure you learn a lot”.


Failure is not an option for these students because the idea of their success or achievement is based not on their own expectations and beliefs, but on someone else’s. How do I know this? Because I have used the SEJ for me and for the student in front of me, I no longer neither fear falling off the bike nor do I see students as failing - they simply got results they were not expecting.


Why does this matter? Students are not numbers or exam results; they have talents and skills in other areas that are just as important and more relevant to living a purposeful and joyous life. Graduating with a first class degree may be a nice accolade but it does not guarantee a happy and fulfilling life afterwards. I have met many inspiring individuals who despite the challenges life throws at them somehow succeed in studying and graduating with big smiles on their bright faces. They really are effective at living their lives and to me this is true success. It is not a matter of academic failure or achievement but of experiencing their time at University as fully as possible.


So good luck to all of you who think you have failed - you may find you have discovered a miracle cure from your ‘failures’. After all many scientific and engineering discoveries are born out of so-called failure – just think of penicillin, pacemakers and post-it notes to name a few of the most famous!


Dr M Howard-Kishi


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