[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 25 July 2005, 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
The art of failure
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News

No one enjoys failure.

Even the most stereotypical plucky Brit, the type of person who revels in national sporting disasters, will enjoy a secret smile of satisfaction that they are at least making a success of their failure.

And yet everyone fails. From your first driving test to your first job interview to your first girlfriend to your first marriage.

Sometimes you will go through periods when nothing ever seems to go right.

(You will notice my careful choice of words here. I've never enjoyed anything but wild success, which is why, no doubt, I was asked to write this piece.)

Political correctness

But at what point does a random sequence of setbacks begin to form into a depressing pattern. At what point do you become a failure?
Jones and McGrath
Two impostors: England's Simon Jones (l), and Australia's Glenn McGrath

Or are you, in the words of retired primary school teacher Liz Beattie, simply enjoying a period of "deferred success"?

Mrs Beattie caused predictable howls of outrage when she suggested the word "fail" should be "deleted from the educational vocabulary". Education secretary Ruth Kelly gave the idea "0 out of 10". The phrases "political correctness" and "gone mad" may have been pressed into service.

But Mrs Beattie, who will propose the motion this week at the Professional Association of Teachers' annual conference, is sticking to her guns. "We had deferred success with it," she jokes.


The motion could have been worded better, she says. What she had in mind was encouraging a more supportive attitude in the classroom, and provoking a bit of debate.

She bridles at the suggestion, made by several newspaper commentators, that she belongs to the "non-competitive sports" school of thought, that demands all shall have prizes, regardless of ability. "I don't want to label everybody a success until they have got there," she says. "I do want to stop people labelling themselves failures."

Memories for many people of mortar board-wearing bullies who delighted in branding their young charges thick, useless or "bone idle" may still be strong, thanks in no small part to comics.

But even in these supposedly more enlightened times, far too many children are still being written off through no fault of their own, argues Mrs Beattie.

"The word failure itself is probably used less. What I would like to see less of is people who think they themselves have failed, who say 'I am useless, I can't do anything."


So what does being labelled a failure do to a person?

"It has an incredibly powerful emotional impact", says evolutionary psychologist Nigel Nicholson, of the London Business School.

"It is very dangerous stuff. People take it out on themselves. It becomes a great burden that prevents them from getting on with their lives. They even start taking responsibility for things which are not their fault."

Don't worry if you make mistakes because that's how the best of us learn
Sir Alan Sugar
Sports stars and entertainers fail all the time, he argues. But they study their failures, become obsessed with them even, and, crucially, try to learn from them.

"They don't use the F word. They use positive reinforcement."

It is a different story in business, education and politics where failure is very often debilitating.


We could all learn something from Wall Street traders, Professor Nicholson argues, who are trained to take a more objective, analytical approach to failure. When a trader loses his or her first billion the temptation must be to run screaming from the room, but instead they sit down and analyse where they went wrong.

"The trick is to separate your identity from your performance," says Professor Nicholson.

Professor Nicholson scoffs at the notion of rebranding failure as "deferred success", saying it is wrong to believe everyone can be a success at everything.

"One of the lessons of failure is that you are doing the wrong thing."

But he is also wary of the idea that failure can be a spur to success.

'Safety net'

Everyone has heard tales of self-made businessman written off at 15 by their careers teacher only return to the school a few years later in a Rolls-Royce.

Michael Douglas, who played Gordon Gekko in Wall Street
'Lunch is for wimps... If you need a friend, get a dog'
But to deliberately brand someone a failure in order to spur them on to ever greater heights will not work in "80% of cases", Professor Nicholson argues. "The trouble with failure is that it shreds people. They become unresponsive. They cannot learn properly. You need a psychological safety net to learn from your mistakes."

Dr David Cannon, who has written a PhD on failure (he passed), argues that the key to failure is to recover from it quickly, even if that means initially blaming someone else.

"People can come back later and say actually, you know, it probably was my fault," he argues.

Dr Cannon believes we can learn from the American way of doing things - triumph over adversity is part of the American psyche - although he admits there is "probably something psychologically suspect" about people who bounce back a bit too easily.

Avoiding failure is clearly a life's work. Far better to get used to it at an early age...

Your comments

I was never going to get a GCSE said my teacher at 14. I now have a 2.1 degree in history and a good job. Most people see themselves as failures only if others openly view them as such. It is human nature to make mistakes and often takes a superhuman effort to get over it! If you make a mistake, admit it, learn from it (usually make it once more just to double check) and move on! It is better to regret all the things you have done than the things you haven't!
Celia Enderby, London, England

This is what people have forgotten about being British. We invented Sportsmanship, the ethic of saying, "We lost, you won, well done." We invented self-mockery, the ability to laugh when we fail. It's better than blowing yourself up.
Graham, High Wycombe

This is all semantics! The need is for teachers to start acquiring the interpersonal skills to be able to tell the truth but in a way which builds the self esteem of the pupil. Away with political correctness and in with common sense!
Greg, Birmingham

Actually please don't lump all Brits in together when it comes to cricketing failure. Scotland have won their last two international championships including the ICC Trophy this month. It's only England who get thrashed!
James, Edinburgh

The 'Winner/loser' conditioning is part of the grand advertising program pioneered by corporate America. Be a winner, drive a fast flash car, wear Nike trainers, date a stick-insect dressed in designer drapes. Its the stereotyped inflated super ego that's infecting everyone. Encouraging our kids to become a self infatuated egomaniacs. Was Ghandi a Winner? Did he worry about the failures in his life? No! And he didn't wear Nikes either!!! Failure breeds character. Something sadly lacking these days.
Jon Evans, Llanelli, Wales

If we were to admit that children develop at different rates and are ready for different things at different times, perhaps we could just allow them to succeed when they are ready, instead of pressing them into failing young. Many countries in Europe don't even start to teach reading until we've already tested our children and found them wanting, could there be a lesson for us in there somewhere?
Jax Blunt, UK

I think that this is an important article, which not only should be published on the web, but should be handed out anywhere people might be! I know that it sounds extreme, but I think that many people feel like failures for no reason at all, like not being able to 'fit into clothes' and not realising at the first moment they see their partner at home what's wrong with them. People should start loving and respecting themselves more.
Sotiria, York

I think 'failure' should still exist in education, because as an adult you fail at many things, and without learning about failure, how it occurs, why it occurs, you will never learn to overcome failure. it is an important life skill, therefore an essential part of education. failure is not the end of the world, just another thing we all have to deal with at some stage or another.
philippa, bishops stortford

As long as you do your best, that is all that counts. Quickly learn from each mistake and move on. Why worry? I've learnt there is always another way of seeing something. And that includes your position in life and what can be done about it.
Andrew Norris, Warrington UK

Children learn the most when they are youngest. Covering them in cotton wool and preventing them from learning to deal with failure will hurt them in the long run. Failure is a fact of life. You cannot avoid it forever. Allowing children to fail is important as long as you then show them how to rebuild & learn from it. Pretending life can be dealt with through "deferring success" will create a generation of failures.
Ben, London

There is no such thing as failure, only feedback
Tony Raisbeck, Preston, England

I think it's time to stop this nonsense. If nothing else, learn what we have learned in this country. Our new graduates go out in the real world only to quickly realize that the business world will not go out of their way to make them feel good about themselves. Let's face it, we will all fail at something at one point or another. Children need to learn how to deal with failure in order to succeed later in life.
lc, san jose, california usa

Sir, To fail does not automatically make a person into a failure. We learn from our failure and then try again. Only when we have become so used to failure that we no longer try, do we ourselves become failures.
0Brian Stenner, Sudbury Suffolk England

I feel that failure is emphasised far more than success. It's part of our culture of criticism and blame.
Nev, Cambridge

I'm increasingly drawn to the view that childhood lasts a lifetime. So much of how we view ourselves is defined during our impressionable formative years, when parental expectations and parameters for behaviour are at their most powerful. That doesn't mean we can't change of course, but in practice I know of very few people who have managed to make the break. My hope is that my son's attitudes towards success/failure are more positive than mine. But only time will tell.
Anon, UK

As a tutor of metal health service users, the word 'fail' is not often used as with this group of people it can have very traumatic results. However, I would never use the term 'deferred success' to a student who has not achieved what they wanted (OK 'passed'!). I tell students that they need more work on the subject. What's wrong with that?
Chris Cruickshank, Redditch

I still consider myself a failure post stroke etc!! Before, I was a married private legal secretary and, yes, I have survived v v well but the fact remains that IT HAPPENED at only 28!!! I was incredibly career driven before. My marriage ended as a result and I am unsure whether I should have fought so hard just to breathe!!!! I apologise but becoming disabled was my worst ever nightmare!!
Carole Young, Glasgow, Scotland

The problem sometimes with failure is that it can be self-destructive. If you fail, you are more likely to fail unless you really put your mind to succeeding next time. Which is why the mindset of an Olympic champion is almost as important as fitness level.
Craig Moore, Brighton

The traditional way of success emphasized too much on early on in life: good grades, good school etc. Failing a math exam for your a-levels shouldn't mean total failure and no future. Life still goes on; People can go on and do wonderful things in their life even though they were not a straight A student in school.
Anna, Sweden

At the end of my first year in secondary school, I was told I wasn't good enough to be in the top Maths set. Rather thank think it was because I was no good at the subject, I was determined to prove the teacher wrong. I graduated with a 2:1 in Maths and Philosophy last year - perhaps I took it a little too far?
Lizzy Nash, Berkshire

As a small child, I had the word "failure" drummed into me by unkind parents. As a result, I always seem to be either trying to prove them wrong, or giving in and admitting them right. I have recently learned to try to ignore these "curses" and make my own way. Rather that be driven to success or failure, I want to be free to choose what to do regardless of whether I'll be seen by my parents as failing or succeeding. I'm all for abandoning traditional ideas of failure or success, and just encourage children to build on their strengths and make up for their weaknesses. Why condemn someone who's really just not made for, say, maths? I must be turning into a hippy!
Dan, newquay, UK

I think failure is an encouragement force if well taken care of, for success to be achieved there has to be a form of failure at a point be it in the most minute form i think it spurs you on to perform.e.g a law student who on his first moot trial does not do well. The faults picked by the judge helps him gain some points about some important procedures in court. i think your environment, family and parents also play an important role if you have perfectionists around u it would be very hard to cope with failure and if in the extreme can be depressing, your temperament also plays a role on how to cope with failure.
Matthew Nwankwo, Lagos Nigeria

Do you consider yourself a failure?
To be honest, yes
Absolutely no way
It's too early to tell
6924 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific