Learning from Failure
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Living on the Edge
Infinite complexity, endless possibilities, and resulting constant
change characterize our time. In the 21st century, individuals,
groups, and organizations must create, innovate, and—
especially—reflect to tackle challenges in environment,
economy, society, polity, and technology.
Since success always starts with failure, generating the solutions
we need demands the ability to take risks, embrace failure, and
move on: all is not lost if the lesson is not.
'Tis the maddest trick a man can ever play in his whole life, to let
his breath sneak out of his body without any more ado, and
without so much as a rap o'er the pate, or a kick of the guts; to
go out like the snuff of a farthing candle, and die merely of the
mulligrubs, or the sullens.—Miguel de Cervantes
The Optimism of Children
Children are not afraid
to fall short: they fail
countless times at
talking, riding a bicycle,
tying shoelaces, and
other important tasks.
Playing is a vital part of the lives of
children: it leads to sense-making
(constructing) in a social world that
values participation, and that leads
to knowing. Is it because they no
longer play that adults are afraid to
slip? After all, is play not the
opposite of work?
I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from
Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness
of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me
to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.—Steve Jobs
Allaying Adult Fears
Failure is something adults shy from. Their fear is
understandable: they are paid to succeed, not blunder.
Despite the occasional exhortation—"If you're not making
mistakes, you're not trying hard enough!"—personnel knows
that mistakes are generally punished, not appreciated.
As a result, many adults are reluctant to admit shortcomings and
take as few chances as possible. This inhibits individual and
collective growth and leads to procrastination and
Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of
A man's errors are his portals of discovery.—James Joyce
Forgotten Wisdom for Adults
The key to
is tolerance of
to new ideas, and time for
prerequisites to learning.
promote a passion for
learning and pursue
courses of action that
The Attributes of Failure
Failure is not inherently bad: it softens hearts, develops
maturity, broadens thinking, offers insights, prompts
innovation, reveals ability, inspires, reinforces the need
for risk, builds courage, fortifies, opens other
opportunities, brings unexpected benefits, pushes the
envelope of future performance, liberates, and makes
success sweeter; it is preferable to bitterness and regret.
To better grasp the attributes of failure and treat it as a
friend, we should not define them (nor those of success)
narrowly. Failure is best conceptualized as deviation from
expected and desired results.
• Appreciate that failure is not avoidable, objective, a single
event, a stigma, the enemy, or final.
• Understand why you made the decision you took based on
the information you had.
• Assess you decisions based on what you knew at the time.
• Judge the systemic errors you committed in under- or
overestimating difficulties, costs, timelines, abilities, etc.
• Examine whether you had all the information you needed.
• Investigate what successes are contained in the failure and
• Plan to obtain more and better information to underpin
• Use the experience to build and work from strengths.
• Set a new goal, order your plan, take action, reevaluate
progress, and adjust continually.
Give me a fruitful error any
time, full of seeds, bursting
with its own corrections. You
can keep your sterile truth for
• ADB. 2009. Dimensions of the Learning Organization. Manila.
• ADB.2009. Learning from Evaluation. Manila. Available:
• ADB.2009. Building a Learning Organization. Manila.
• ADB. 2009. Understanding Complexity. Manila. Available:
• ADB. 2010. Embracing Failure. Manila. Available:
Principal Knowledge Management Specialist
Regional and Sustainable Development Department
Asian Development Bank