Redefining Failure

authentic engineering design process everyday life failure interdisciplinary instruction learning problem solving project-based learning real-world stem stem education thinking transferable skills Jun 03, 2024
Coffee cup beside napkin with text Failure is success in progress

Failure is a word that generally has a negative connotation.  Most of us don't like to admit to having failed.  The stigma can make us feel inferior, less than adequate, or - well - like a failure.

The dictionary gives one definition for failure as "the lack of success."  What's missing from this definition, though, is any sense of over what time period success is lacking.  Further, there is no universal definition for success, so to determine whether something is a failure requires one to define that term, too.

Failure in Sports

Sports provide useful analogies for many things in life, and failure is no exception.  Let's focus on baseball for a moment.  In baseball, the batter's goal is get a hit.  One might argue that reaching base safely is really the goal, but the analogy holds regardless just with a different statistic.  Additionally, a player's enduring legacy will more likely be judged by batting average, not on base percentage.

Over the history of the sport, hitters with career batting averages above 0.300 are considered exceptional.  According to ESPN, there are only 182 players with career batting averages above 0.300.  At the top of this list is Ty Cobb whose career average was "only" 0.366.  If you don't know, a player's batting average is calculated by dividing the number of hits by the number of official plate appearances.  In simple terms, a player with a 0.300 average gets a hit three times out of every 10 at bats.

If "success" as a hitter in baseball is defined as getting a hit, then the best 200 players to ever play failed almost 70% of the time!  We don't see these players as failures, though, because success as a hitter is not measured on each individual attempt to get a hit.  Instead, we take a longer view and a different definition of success.  The ESPN stats list referenced above only includes players whose career batting average is 0.283 or above, and there are just over 500 players on the list.  Therefore, it might be said that success as a hitter is having a career batting average near 0.300.  As a result, a batter who "fails" to achieve the goal seven out of 10 times might very likely considered one of the greatest hitters ever.

Failure in Business

An article comparing the Fortune 500 lists from 1955 and 2014 reports that "only 61 companies appear in both lists."  In other words, 88% of the companies that were included in the Fortune 500 in 1955 were not in the Fortune 500 in 2014.  Another article lists 10 of those that disappeared, and most of these are very recognizable - Blockbuster, General Motors, Polaroid, and Kodak among them.

Can we say that these businesses failed?  Again, it depends on how one defines success as a business.  If the only measure is longevity, then perhaps.  However, General Motors is described in the article as "one of the most important car manufacturers for over 100 years."  (GM declared bankruptcy in 2009 and was reorganized as a new company in part as a result of a government bailout.)  Kodak and Polaroid are responsible for many innovations in photography.  Therefore, it could be argued that these companies did not fail.  We might say they were successful but outlived their usefulness.

There are also a number of well-known business people who survived failure in their early years.  This list of seven contains such notable names as Thomas Edison, Milton Hershey, and Soichiro Honda.  Despite the fact that these people were associated with businesses that did not achieve their initial goals, each went on to become successful in future endeavors.  Are we to count them as failures or successes?  Again, it depends on both the definition of success and the time span being considered.

Failure in STEM

STEM education is a project-based, interdisciplinary approach to learning that provides students with authentic contexts in which to apply knowledge and skills.  Authentic means that the projects are intended to resemble those found in the real world, and as such they will not have easy, clear cut solutions.  Such problems are sometimes referred to as wicked.  A wicked problem is one that might seem to have no solution.  Just making progress towards a solution will most likely require significant innovation - existing approaches may be insufficient.  We might even have to compromise on what parts of the problem to address.  A complete solution may be out of reach, but a partial solution could move us one step closer.

When faced with this kind of problem, is an incomplete or unsuccessful solution a failure?  According to the dictionary definition, it is.  We did not achieve success.  However, just as we do not expect a batter to get a hit in every at bat (thus achieving a perfect career batting average of 1.000), we cannot expect every attempt to solve a complex, real-world problem to result in a complete and totally successful solution.  Failure is an essential part of the engineering design process.  It provides new information and feedback that drive innovation in each successive iteration.

Failure is Learning

Samuel Smiles, a Scottish author, once said,

We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.

Failing is an essential part of learning.  Not only do we "discover what will do, by finding out what will not do," we also learn how to persevere and how to deal with setbacks and challenges.  The problems found in the authentic, project-based contexts that form the core of STEM education are not meant to have simple solutions.  They are meant to induce failures and provide opportunities for learning from them so that the next attempt at a solution is better than the last.

A Better Definition

Just as a single at bat does not define a hitter as a success or a failure, a single attempt to solve a wicked problem should not either.  The difference between success and failure depends on two characteristics not found in the dictionary definition: what is success and over what time period.  A refined, but albeit not perfect, definition for failure might be

A sustained inability to achieve stated goals resulting in an abandonment of a pursuit.

While this definition better captures the need to define success and a prescribed time interval, it still fails (no pun intended) to recognize beneficial outcomes that might result from the efforts but which were not part of the original stated goals.  For example, Dr. Alexander Fleming did not set out to discover penicillin, so it likely cannot be said that he accomplished his stated goals.  There are many other examples of innovations in science and technology resulting from side-effects or accidental discoveries.

Regardless of the exact wording of the definition, though, the term failure should not carry the negativity generally conferred upon it.  In STEM particularly, failure is a good thing.  It is an essential part of innovation, and it helps to develop character and confidence in those who experience it, learn from it, and press on with their efforts.

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