Embracing failure and design vs. research

My college friend Ann Marie Thomas has a post up on the problematic use of the word “failure” in the discourse around education, technology, and design. I was listening to Dyson extoll the virtues of failure Science Friday recently, and it also made me cringe. Ann talks about the problems with “failure” from an education and design point of view, but I think it’s also problematic from teaching/training students to be researchers. One of the most normalizing things I heard in graduate school from my advisor was “well, that’s research for you” after I told him I had found a counterexample to everything I had “proved” in the previous week. I don’t think of that as “embracing failure” but rather a recognition that the process is not one of continuous forward progress.

The sound-bite nature of the word does a disservice to the valuable concept, which is, as Ann says, to “try something.” I think it’s not (often) true that students are afraid to try things because they are afraid to fail. It’s far more likely that they are unsure of how to try things, or what to try. The problem is too abstract and it’s hard to find any sort of inroad that might make sense. Or they have thought they have an inroad and it’s absolutely not working and they are frustrated because they can’t step back and say “this approach is bad.”

I can’t help but think that this talk of “failure” is somehow leaking in from positive psychology. I think it treats us like children who may be afraid to go down some stairs because they are too tall, or afraid to try the new food because it looks funny. It obscures the really difficult part, which is about where to start, not how you end.