What is intelligent failure?

Failure is of different types and we should learn to recognise what kind it is and the lessons it teaches us.

May 04, 2024 04:27 pm | Updated 05:54 pm IST

Knowledge only advances when we’re willing to embrace intelligent failures. 

Knowledge only advances when we’re willing to embrace intelligent failures.  | Photo Credit: Freepik

Failure. The very word stings. Since failure has strong negative connotations, including scarring us permanently, we tend to avoid it at all costs. However, none of us started off believing that failure was the end of the road. In fact, as infants, we’ve taken shaky first steps and fallen a few times. But that didn’t deter us from trying and eventually walking with ease. Though we’re programmed to take failure in our stride quite literally as infants, by the time we enter the portals of formal schooling, we become enculturated to denigrate and shun it.

With decades of painstaking research to back up her assertions, psychologist Amy Edmondson provides a more nuanced perspective on failure in Right Kind of Wrong. Rather than demonising all failure, she argues that failure comes in different guises. While we may try to avoid ‘bad’ failures, we may also learn the craft of “failing well.”

Edmondson defines failure as “an outcome that deviates from desired results” including doing poorly in the Stats exam, falling off a bike or having a short story being rejected by a literary magazine. Further, she categorises failure into three types.

Types of failure

Basic failures are ones that could have been easily avoided if we take sufficient care and invest requisite effort. Suppose you fell off your bike because you were trying to push away your hair that was getting in your face on a windy day. Had you worn your helmet, your hair wouldn’t have disturbed you. So, that would qualify as a basic failure, as it could have been averted by simply wearing the appropriate gear.

What about the Stats exam? Suppose you had put off studying until the last minute. Under normal circumstances that wouldn’t have been a problem because the portions included only one chapter that you understood quite well. But, just as you got down to studying, some visitors landed up unannounced. As nobody else was at home, you ended up entertaining them for about an hour. Soon as they left, you hit your books. But, within 10 minutes, there was a power outage. You studied with a torchlight, but found it hard to work out problems. The low grade you got on the test, thus, cannot be attributed to any single cause. According to Edmondson, complex failures have myriad causes and “often include a pinch of bad luck” as well. However, the lesson you may glean from this failure is that putting off studying till the last minute can be risky at times.

Your story being rejected by a literary magazine constitutes an intelligent failure. You did your best by working hard, writing, rewriting, proofreading and polishing multiple drafts. So, your story did not have any basic errors like sloppy writing. For a failure to qualify as intelligent, it has to have four features. First, it has to “take place in new territory.” This is the first time you are submitting to a literary magazine. Next, the failure should help you get closer to “a desired goal.” You aspire to be a writer someday, so knowing how the publishing world works is useful information. Third, the failure is “informed by available knowledge.” You did all the due diligence by researching magazines that take debut writers and incorporated your English professor’s feedback. Finally, the failure is low stakes where the cost of failing is not going to hurt you badly.

As Edmondson avers, these criteria may be used as guidelines to determine whether a failure is intelligent. Knowledge only advances when we’re willing to embrace intelligent failures. Venturing into new territory always entails uncertainty. Whether it’s a science experiment, your first time living on your own or a job interview, unless you try, you cannot learn from experience. If you fail, don’t fret. Instead, analyse why an experience didn’t pan out as you hoped, learn from it and move on.

The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at www.arunasankaranarayanan.com

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