By: Louise North – Principal and Head of the Senior School, Framlingham College

Albert Einstein, J K Rowling, Charles Darwin, Fred Astaire, Ted Geisel, Winston Churchill, Michael Jordan, Thomas Edison…and me. What do I have in common with them, I wonder?

Well, I am not a genius, nor am I an amazing basketball player, or a dancer or a writer or a Prime Minister. What we all are however, are very good at failing.

  • Fred Astaire was described as someone who “Can’t act. Is slighty bald and dances a little.”
  • Ted Geisel, creator of Dr Seuss, had his first manuscript rejected 28 times.
  • J K Rowling had her first Harry Potter manuscript rejected 12 times.
  • Thomas Edison failed over 10,000 times trying to invent a commercially-viable electric bulb.
  • Charles Darwin once said “I was considered by all my masters and my father, a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect.”
  • Winston Churchill lost 5 elections on his way to becoming PM.
  • Henry Ford, of Ford Motors said: The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

Today, I want to focus just briefly on why failure is such an important thing to experience. Failing is essential if we are ever going to learn anything, and far from fearing failure, we all need to embrace it.

Michael Jordan said: “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

What exactly does that mean? That is why I succeed? Through failing, we learn. It’s simple. If we never got anything wrong, we would never learn how to do anything better, we would never progress. The Museum of Failure in Sweden says that real innovation requires failure and there are so many examples that illustrate this including Dyson who made over 5000 attempts at producing the bagless vacuum cleaner. There’s a consistent message here and it’s one we should listen to. It’s about persistence. We have to try something, make a mistake or two, reflect on it, learn something from it, and try it again. Failing is not the opposite of learning, rather it is an essential part of our learning.

I have had many failures, but before I tell you a few of mine, talk to the person next to you and tell them when you last failed at something..or got something wrong…

My failings are many and varied:

  • When I was 14, I decided that I didn’t need to revise for a French exam, because I was very good at French. When I got my result, which was really bad, I was placed in a low set and told by my teacher to think about what happened. It was fair enough – I hadn’t worked, I thought I knew it all, but I didn’t. I lacked the detail, the passe compose endings, the preceding direct object agreements…but I learned from that, and since then, have never assumed that I had all the answers…and I have always done my research and my homework.
  • I auditioned for Alice through the Looking Glass once, with dreams of being chosen to be Alice, having the main part (and the limelight). When the cast list went up, I wasn’t Alice, instead I was given the part of the DoDo. At the time, I felt like a failure – how could I be overlooked? What had I not done right in my audition?
  • Another failure of mine is to do with public speaking. When I first became a teacher, I used to blush a lot. In ordinary conversation, in the classroom, or at a parents meeting…I would blush, sometimes because I was shy and embarrassed and sometimes for no reason at all. This was a huge failing on my part. I then started to speak in public, and the situation got worse. But I did not want to be defeated by this. I wanted to improve so I practised and I researched this challenge and found out a variety of techniques to calm my blushing down. Now, 25 years later, I don’t blush – I overcame my failure after many attempts to do so. If anyone here suffers from the same thing, come and see me and I will let you into my secrets.

Other failures of mine include:

  • Failing to learn how to ballroom dance – a lifelong ambition
  • Failing to complete a jigsaw based on a Canaletto painting which I had seen in a gallery. In essence, it is water and sky and I simply cannot do it (yet)
  • Failing to remember all your names, in spite of trying hard to learn them all
  • Failing to run every other day, a promise I made to myself when I arrived here
  • Failing to read a chapter a day of my current book, because I keep falling asleep on the same page each night
  • Failure to resist the large bag of minstrels that I had in my car yesterday when I travelled back from Cambridge

The list is endless, but I keep on trying to get better, whatever my failure is and I will eventually complete that jigsaw.

Don’t be afraid of trying something just because you find it hard, or you might not at first do well. Don’t fall into the category of someone who would rather not try at all in the face of challenge than try and fail. Give it a go. If you fail, learn from it and try again. Whether it’s a skill, a friendship, a challenge, an academic target, an ambition or a dream – whatever it is, keep persevering.

When asked by a reporter whether he felt like a failure after so many failed attempts, Thomas Edison (pictured above) said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

As for today, you won’t get it back so make the most of every opportunity.

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