Failure is such an important skill, they’re now teaching it in college

This article originally appeared in Levo.

Failure is a part of life but when you grow up as a straight-A student who can kick ass in every subject, score high on any test and write the heck out of a paper in one cramming session, this can actually be really bad for when you enter the real world.

In the real world, especially in the workplace, homework no longer guarantees you are the No.1 person. Ideas, skills, networking, taking a risk and sometimes just being in the right place at the right time are what get you ahead in your career. And ultimately, unlike in school where there is almost always a safety net, failing is actually one of the most helpful tools.

That is why Smith College is actually teaching a class on the importance of failure and it’s about time.

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A recent New York Times article by Feminist Fight Club author Jessica Bennett, explored the school’s unique new curriculum: teaching students how to fail. During finals, students’ failures were projected on a large screen for everyone to see as part of a new initiative at Smith called “Failing Well.” The effort includes workshops on impostor syndrome and getting over perfectionism plus campaigns that highlight the likelihood of getting a B-minus or lower at Smith (64 percent chance.)

“What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature,” Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist in Smith’s Wurtele Center for Work and Life, told Bennett. “It’s not something that should be locked out of the learning experience. For many of our students — those who have had to be almost perfect to get accepted into a school like Smith — failure can be an unfamiliar experience. So when it happens, it can be crippling.”


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Other schools including Harvard, Princeton and UPenn have similar initiatives designed for students who know plenty about how to excel, but little on the art of failure. Smith grad Emily Hoeven who helped with the campaign said, “There is this kind of expectation on students at a lot of these schools to be succeeding on every level… We wanted to show that life is not that perfect.”

Even though “failing forward” is a part of modern work lingo and is the hallmark of some very successful entrepreneurs (think Jobs, Sara Blakely, Vera Wang), anyone in student mode, especially high school and college, believe grades, class rankings and extracurriculars are the only measures of success.

Simmons is clear that those aspects of academia have value and she doesn’t encourage flunking out of school as a lesson, rather she sees this campaign as a resource for students who think anything less than an A is a reason to doubt their self-worth.

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Then there’s the fact that failure can actually increase your rate of long-term success. The key, according to multiple researchers, is to discuss what went wrong and why, in order to better understand how to thrive moving forward.

And let’s never forget the wisdom of JK Rowling: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

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