Saturday, February 27, 2010

Forward Failure

"Failure is a detour, not a dead-end street." - Zig Ziglar

Failure is the greatest teacher that I have ever had in my life. I've learned more through my mistakes than I ever have through successes. One of the people I admire and read about often is Abraham Lincoln. Failure was a critical component to Lincoln's success. Here is a short list of the failures that helped him move forward.
  • He failed as a businessman - as a storekeeper.
  • He failed as a farmer - he despised this work.
  • He failed in his first attempt to obtain political office.
  • When elected to the legislature he failed when he sought the office of speaker.
  • He failed in his first attempt to go to Congress.
  • He failed when he sought the appointment to the United States Land Office.
  • He failed when he ran for the United States Senate.
  • He failed when friends sought for him the nomination for the vice-presidency in 1856.
Each one of these failures helped him move forward on his journey towards greatness. The most important thing I can do as a leader is to cultivate a culture of risk-taking and forward failure. This is the culture necessary to help students and teachers move outside of filling in bubbles sheets and into the world of problem solving, critical thinking, and creating new products/projects.

There are three things that we are currently doing to help cultivate a forward failing culture.
  1. Provide opportunities for teachers and students to explore outside of the curriculum to find things they are passionate about and have them tie it into essential learnings.
  2. Provide resources and support when presented with a new idea, approach, or plan to move the school forward.
  3. Show people that forward failure is okay by supporting and assisting people when a project does not go as planned. This will lead to more risk taking and eventually a superior idea/product.
Lincoln is not the only prominent failure that exists in history. The video below shows several more. Keep in mind that Edison failed thousands of times before he revolutionized the world with his invention. Our students hold the key to the next great idea. We cannot continue to try to solve today's problems with yesterday's answers. We need to set up the environment that fosters the surfacing of that idea.

How are you cultivating a culture of "Forward Failure" in your work? Please share so that we can all move forward on this journey. B


  1. You do know there is a book entitled Failing Forward by John Maxwell. :-) I try to foster this idea with my staff each time one of them come to me with an idea they would like to try - "out of the box". We always have a "debrief" to talk about what went well, what could we do better next time. When I was still in the classroom, I helped get a "senior project" started in our high school. The biggest question I got from my seniors "What if my project fails, or doesn't work?" I would always respond with "Great!" and "Did you learn anything? - That is what you will talk about when you present your project!"
    Failing forward should be one of the key points of focus in the classroom - let students explore and learn from failure as well as success!

  2. Nice Post! I am a big fan of failure.

    That sounds odd, but I mean it! I encourage my students to fail everyday. And then we learn from it.

    I write about things like this often too. Check out my blog at

    I am a big proponent of abolishing grades because they encourage risk aversion. Alfie Kohn writes about this in my favorite article of his:

    thanks for sharing!! I have added your blog to my google reader.

  3. I always tell my students there's no such thing a failure, it's just a lesson we needed to learn.