Failure Is Essential

by DR. TIM BALL on MAY 19, 2011


Man learns little from success, but much from failure. ~Anonymous

A Disturbing Trend Becomes Pervasive

Support and even reward of failure by the current US administration is the culmination of a pattern begun several years ago under the guise of progress. It generally began in the school system when students were not allowed to fail, and worse, were pushed unprepared to a higher level. By the time the student realized they were totally unprepared they were no longer in the education system. It is an ultimately destructive approach in contradiction with natural law.

Now the concept of ‘no failures’ has graduated to politics and is being imposed on society and business. It is a threat to the US maintaining and furthering its achievements. Instead of striving toward the highest standard the objective and the result becomes a decline to the lowest standard. Of course, there is a benefit for a government seeking control of society. People who have failed become dependent on the government. Those who succeed are reduced in numbers and marginalized. This group creates progress, but poses a threat as the most likely to challenge the government.

Failure is normal and essential. The adage that man learns little from success but much from failure can’t work if you prevent or ignore failure. Rewarding failure also belittles success. Why obey the speed limit if others speed with impunity? Why work for reward when others get the rewards without working? If you also punish success, then the process is even more debilitating.


Although I was supposedly at the top of the education pyramid as a university professor, I knew education is a continuum and involved myself in the entire education process throughout my career. I served on and was President of a K–12 teachers organization, eventually being honored with a lifetime membership. I counseled hundreds of students over the years, and continue even now. I still give presentations in schools whenever possible. I gave the keynote address for the first Canadian conference on Agriculture in the Classroom in 1982 and remained involved until recently. I was also active with 4H, a parallel but valuable life skills educator outside of the formal education system.

I watched more and more students come into university simply unprepared. A measure of the problems was the proliferation of remedial skills courses and probationary courses required before assigning regular student status in colleges and universities. Employers increasingly complained about poor skills among graduating students. Approximately 10 emails a month from students doing classroom projects provide me with a crude measure of poor language skills.

Not allowing failure became a prevailing philosophy in our schools several years ago. It’s assumed this will promote individual personality and freedom when the actual result is enslavement of the individual. It ignores the fact you learn self-discipline by initially being disciplined. As you demonstrate a personal responsibility you are given more self-discipline. It is naïve and dangerous to assume children will develop self-discipline on their own. It is dangerous for the child and for society.

Two incidents focused the issue of failure for me. A student was struggling with my course in introductory climate. I provided additional help; the student worked hard, but still did not pass the course. In subsequent discussion with the student, it was clear not passing the course was extended to being a failure. I explained that all it meant was the student was not going to have a career in climate science. The student would have other talents that the education system had not identified, or more likely was not capable or interested in identifying. As Robert Schuller explained,

Failure doesn’t mean you are a failure… it just means you haven’t succeeded yet.

Or, as Thomas Edison, the greatest inventor and innovator said,

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

This underlines my view that the education system assumes that every child going into kindergarten will end up in university. This automatically makes failures out of those who don’t get there. A commentator on CNN recently confirmed this thinking with the remark that the unemployment problem was exacerbated because 70 percent of US citizens didn’t have college education. Nor have 99 percent of the people throughout history, but it didn’t stop progress.

A second incident involved a debate with a liberal education professor about the need for school leaving exams. It occurred in front of High School students and teachers. He opposed them with the usual arguments; teachers simply taught to the exams; they created stress for the students; they create a two-tiered society of successes and failures. In response I said; at least the teachers were teaching to some standard; yes, the tests were stressful but life is stressful and preparing students for life is fundamental; the results created a two-tiered society because the testing was usually geared to college entrance rather than a broad determination of abilities; the system usually ignored how the measures were helpful to students as a measure of their abilities with other students beyond their school.

I was jeered and booed most of the time until, to a mighty cheer, a student said he opposed testing of any kind. I suggested the student better hope the pilot of the next commercial flight he took had achieved some level of performance in his flying tests. Afterward many teachers said they supported the testing position, but were afraid to express it openly. In the parking lot a student told me she had lost a year due to illness so her friends were already in university and discovering how ill-prepared they were. They wished they had a measure of their abilities outside those their school established.

I realize situations vary from country to country, but the more I research the more it is clear that similar practices and problems are reported. Ironically many governments, such as that of Prime Minister Brown in Britain, think more money is the answer. It isn’t because they have increased spending significantly while results deteriorate.


Why do many who accept Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which requires success or survival of the fittest, oppose the equally necessary identification of failures? It appears in line with rejection of the idea that humans are the most successful species in the struggle for survival. Darwin only seems applicable when it fits the political ideology.

There is an interest in failure that seems more than esoteric typified by a magazine self-described as follows:

Failure magazine is the online publication full of humankind’s boldest missteps.

It seems to underline the idea that at a certain level failure becomes a form of success. For example, the Edsel is better remembered than most of Ford’s successful vehicles. However, the real function of failure is to identify what is not working or is misplaced in any segment of society starting with the individual. Problems are only problems if you are not aware of them. Failure helps define the problems after which you are more likely to find the road to success. Reward failure and you remove incentive to improve. You institutionalize and guarantee failure.


Related articles:

  1. Climate Change Debacle: A Product of Ignoring Failure and Negative Results
  2. A Review of My Philosophical Evolution: How I Got Here From There
  3. Rising Food Prices Threaten Obama’s Political Base