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21 November 2022

Weekly Blog – 'What is failure?' 

Weekly Blog – What is failure? 

Weekly Blog – Monday 20 November 


What is failure?  

It is a question I asked of a group of students last week. Their responses ranged from “not doing well in a test,” to “getting something wrong” and to “not achieving a goal.” Whilst these are all technically correct and the likely response of mine at this age, I could not help but be sad. The truest answer came from a student who was the last to respond. They said that failure was an opportunity to learn and to do it better next time. At this point, I must admit, I felt myself beaming with pride for this young student. They were well ahead of me at sixteen years old! 

For too much of the time, we spend too long looking at failure as a negative. We internalise it as a deep sense of personal criticism. It can impact our self-esteem, our self-acceptance, and our sense of self-worth. Ultimately, it can lead to us not trying anything new or outside of our comfort zone, for a sense of fear caused by failing. This not only leads to us not developing ourselves or growing as a person, but also creates a narrative deep inside of ourselves that we cannot extend ourselves beyond what we already know and do. That means, effectively, we stop pushing ourselves, stop ourselves from reaching our true potential. 

After all, no one sets out to fail at something. We do not want to be labelled as having ‘failed’ at something, no matter what it is. We are all intrinsically trying to do the right thing; for ourselves, for others and for things in which we believe. However, I now strongly believe in the power of failure. I am now proud to admit that I have failed on numerous occasions. In fact, the times in which I have failed spectacularly – and sometimes publicly – have been the moments in which I have learned the most and grown as a person. 

Failure can be extremely useful. We can learn from it, gain new insights, and do better next time. The right kind of failures give us added information and teach us something that gets us closer to our goals. 

I recently read an article that said that many live by the motto: If you are not failing you are not taking big enough risks. Said another way, if everything you try turns out exactly as planned and feels very comfortable, you are not stretching yourself. And if you are not stretching, you are not growing. I completely agree with this – now. 

I have not always been this way. At school and university, I was a perfectionist who saw anything but the top grade as a failure or a formal accusation that I had not worked hard enough. It took years to get over *only* getting a B in GCSE French, ruining my run of A*and A grades. As I have progressed through my career, there have been numerous sleepless nights over moments in which I may have seemingly “failed” and fretted over the consequences of these instances and the reflection it had on me as a person.  

It was not until relatively recently that I could see how the failures have pushed me on to be the person I am today. Getting things wrong, learning from them, seeing how to do things differently and accepting that humans cannot get everything right, has led me to believe in myself more. It has led me to make better decisions, form stronger ideas, have greater empathy, and delivered a sense of inner-calm. 

I say this because I can see the younger me’s approach to failure in every school that I have worked in. It is a chronic problem in our education system and in life more generally. Students, especially hardworking and conscientious girls, feel an enormous pressure to be right and to be ‘perfect’ all the time. This is not just in academics, but in every aspect of their existence. The culture needs to change and schools need to do more to develop empowerment, resilience, and an understanding of the benefits of failure. We, as a College, will be doing several supra-curricular events over the course of the year to try and instil the positive view of failure and to develop confidence around It. We want students to embrace that FAIL stands for our “first attempt in learning.” 

So, what is failure? Failure is an opportunity to grow, to be better, to develop, to think differently. The challenge is for us to get that message out there. It will not be easy, but it is better to try and fail than to not try at all. 


Mr James Nichols 

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