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leadership lab

President and vice-chancellor of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont.

Bill Gates reportedly once said: “It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” The renowned entrepreneur and philanthropist co-founded his first company at the age of 17, building a computer to analyze traffic data. While the company failed, Mr. Gates and his co-founder used what they learned from that experience to start Microsoft.

Canadian businessman Jim Estill is a firm believer in failure. “I’ve probably had more failures than anyone else, but the key is to keep them small enough. I’d be doing four things at once, one of the them would kick in and do well, and people would think, ‘Jim’s a genius.’ What they forgot is three of them fell on the floor and didn’t work,” he writes in The Globe and Mail.

The Silicon Valley mantra goes: Fail fast, fail often. This is more than a trendy saying. Creating a culture of innovation requires experimentation and, hence, failure – because from failure comes learning, iteration and adaptation. A great example is Thomas Edison, who failed 1,000 times before he invented the light bulb.

Failure is a cornerstone of learning. Experiencing failure makes students more resilient and more likely to pivot and succeed in an ever-evolving job market. But our current higher-education system, including our grading and tenure systems, aren’t set up to value failure or to help students overcome the potential knocks to self-confidence.

How do we make embracing failure more ingrained in our institutions? How do we foster lifelong learning and experimentation when we tend to be rigid and bureaucratic? How can we teach students to own and learn from their failures if we don’t lead by example?

Create the space for students to share their failures

The fear of failure and of being shunned by classmates and colleagues can stunt the learning process and hamper a student’s ability to apply lessons to a new opportunity. So, what to do? One solution is to create opportunities both in the classroom and campus-wide for students to share their failures. For example, “Stanford, I Screwed Up” is an annual event hosted by Stanford University where students take the stage to open up about their “epic failures” and painful regrets. In Finland, people celebrate the National Day of Failure, started by Finnish university students in 2010. At the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, the Brilliant Entrepreneurship program provides mentors to student entrepreneurs who have all succeeded but are equally rich in their catastrophic failures. Hearing successful peers be open about failure and the lessons gained therein gives students permission to experiment and see what happens.

Reframe the mindset: Fail then pivot

We hear about many startups pivoting – going in a different direction after failed earlier attempts. YouTube was first launched as a video-based dating service. Airbnb initially provided housing solutions around conferences, but when that did not work, the company decided to focus on travellers looking for a cheap place to stay and an authentic local experience. Inherent to pivoting is the idea that failure is necessary for long-term success.

Only when we normalize failure are we able to create a strong culture of innovation. As universities, we are at least partially complicit in the notion of being risk-averse and “learning, up to a point.” We need to push further and faster, for the sake of our transitioning economy. Maybe we’ll even fail along the way.

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