Successful failure: good for the self and science
Article first published online: 13 SEP 2013
© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Journal of Advanced Nursing
Volume 69, Issue 10, pages 2145–2147, October 2013
How to Cite
Clark, A. M. and Thompson, D. R. (2013), Successful failure: good for the self and science. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 69: 2145–2147. doi: 10.1111/jan.12125
- Issue published online: 13 SEP 2013
- Article first published online: 13 SEP 2013
Economies fail, businesses fail, organizations fail, our bodies fail, we fail (Omerod 2005, Cole 2011). Irrespective of all attempts to avoid it, all too readily, failure reigns (Clark & Thompson 2012a). Likewise, for decades, it has been recognized that failure is never far away in research and academic careers (Gagnon 1969, Flores 1998). Promising ideas remain un-translated into new research proposals or articles. Sampling is a struggle. The benefits found in intervention studies are not replicated in new sites. Attempts to change and revitalize organizations, their performance and cultures fall flat. The high-performing dream research teams we aspired to establish and lead remain a collection of individuals. Peers reject our manuscripts, grant applications and promotion requests.
Such failures are almost consistently difficult to deal with, yet are a very real and unavoidable aspect of the academy – they have an impact on both our practical work and our identities. Failures can have very tangible implications for time planning, career progression and reputation. Less obviously, failure can undermine our identities as ‘competent’ scholars (Thomson & Kamler 2012). It can question stances in which we have invested months or even years of work establishing and voicing (Clark & Thompson 2012b).
Yet, given its ubiquity, why is failure – or more especially, acknowledgement, engagement and harnessing of failure – so absent from research discourse? Part of what makes dealing with failure so challenging is our own neglect to adequately acknowledge failure in our physical, written and oral scholarly communities. Discussions of failure remain notably absent from our journals, ‘brown bag lunches’ and guidance to students – failure is also absent from our sanitized discourses, research articles, web pages and presentations. Aversion to failure goes even further – systematic review has identified that up to 40% of ‘negative’ research findings are ‘spun’ into positive results (Boutron et al. 2010), masked by scientifically questionable methodological techniques (Simmons et al. 2011) or dismissed as anomalies (Clark & Thompson 2012b). In comparison, success, by contrast, seems everywhere in everyone. Resumés, journals and web pages are replete with accepted articles, grants and achievements. Influential scholars seem to glide effortlessly between successes and award ceremonies (Glaser 1964).
What is the point of failure?
Failure does not reflect inappropriate or shoddy work – but is rather an encouraging sign that is essential to science:
- Failure reflects good academic practice. The best way to avoid failure is to never ever take risks, be creative or aspirational. History would suggest that this is not a good way to do science (Kuhn 1970). Failure is, paradoxically, more likely to occur when scholars work at the boundaries by being innovative and progressive – attempting to get peers to acknowledge new and novel ideas that go against the dominant grain (Popper 2001). Failure also occurs when researchers have more aspiration for their work: influential journals tend to have higher rejection rates and greater prestige is associated with highly competitive grant competitions. Yet, new ideas have historically often been met with hostility and dismissal (Kuhn 1970). Failure is then collateral or even integral to scientific progression.
- Failure is a teacher; it helps us develop our skills and identities. It can be used as an impetus for self-improvement, for profound self or group reflection, re-visioning and action around identity, strategy and performance. When acceptance of our own failures is assimilated into our scholarly identities more fully, acknowledging failure and broaching and discussing these failures with others normalizes failure in academic settings, promotes personal growth and even aids career progression.
- Failure drives progress. Indeed, failing to learn from failure can inhibit the creation of breakthrough ideas and inventions (Wills 2009, Loewenberg 2013). Methods can help this constructive approach – by building different methods into intervention studies research can not only measure results but, irrespective of their direction, can also produce new knowledge of what influences these results (Pawson & Tilley 1997). Being more open to engaging with failure can generate the impetus for new approaches, innovations and progress (Clark et al. 2012, Loewenberg 2013). Whether in journal articles, proposals or promotion applications, failure affords the opportunity to improve our work (Thomson & Kamler 2012) and can lead to new and unexpected avenues of inquiry. In academic life, as Karl Popper famously argued, failure often has the potential to improve and advance knowledge (Popper 2001). As such, far from being worthy only of dismissal (Clark & Thompson 2012a,b), failure is vital to knowledge development (Kuhn 1970, Popper 2001).
- Failure draws attention to injustice. Important underlying systemic or structural factors can unjustly influence success. Most notably, academic careers and systems of monetary reward, promotion and success are often subject to unfair inequalities related to gender that can masquerade as ability, merit or luck (Tessman 2009). Failure in this sense can be an important measure of discrimination and an impetus for collective action to address underlying factors and promote change (Valian 2005).
Successful Failure: using failure better
Accepting and harnessing failure can be difficult and needs personal resilience. The concept of ‘antifragility’ has recently been coined to refer to the degree to which our reactions to the unexpected allow improvement and foster ultimate gains (Taleb 2011). However, in addition to more antifragility, failure is simply too common and too useful to be neglected. Indeed, we believe failure needs to be confronted, debated and even cherished far more. The concept of ‘successful failure’ gives a great way to do this (Cole 2011).
As with other normal stages of research, failure should be discussed and debated openly. Senior researchers and other mentors can be especially influential role models if they disclose and openly reflect on what has failed in their careers. This not only fosters learning collectively from their experiences, but addresses an important aspect of identity and workplace effectiveness: successful people fail.
Successful failure offers a means to accept failure in academic workplaces and deepen our thinking around both success and failure. However, by going further and ceasing to see ourselves or our work dichotomously as either ‘successes’ or ‘failures’ – a more empowered and better perspective on failure can be reached (Stone et al. 2010). By having scholarly identities that can truly encompass both success and failure, the risk of scholarly narcissism linked to overblown ‘success identities’ and attendant anxiety of public failure is dissipated. This is relevant to nursing which is prone to dominant figures who broadcast with great assertion their manifold successes in what remains a small and relatively un-influential academic discipline (Thompson & Darbyshire 2013). By better recognizing that failure is an important part of success and academic identities, failure can be harnessed better – with more openness and less negative emotions or self doubt. This is vital for nursing as it seeks to advance in academic standing and settings. Successes too can then be handled with more humility and perspective. Indeed, in our experience, as many negative consequences result from handling success badly as is the case with failure.
Our scholarly communities need spaces and places to share openly about failure in a positive, accepting and safe environment. Support to share and learn from failure can also accrue from open reflection on failure. This can occur during formal organizational reviews, but also less formally via conversations in the workplace or impromptu writing groups. Such groups can give mutual support not only for writing but also sharing experiences of failure and success in writing journal articles, dissertations and grant proposals (Kamler & Thomson 2008, Thomson & Kamler 2012). By seeing our careers and their failures through the lens of ‘successful failure’, we can better harness the gifts which failure gives for our research, and harness our many inevitable failures better. This is good for the self and good for science.
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