Can Failure Teach Kids More Than Success? 

CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson.

CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson.

I’ve often thought that the one thing that Richard Branson and other mega-successful people have that I don’t have is the ability to make a mistake once and learn from it so they never make the same mistake again. I’m sure there’s much more to it than that, but I do recognise that it tends to take me much longer before the penny drops. 

It’s interesting how people like Richard Branson, for all their success, seem to talk most about their failures. As though that was the turning point. 

So, why are we so obsessed with success when it seems that failure is at least as important? Kids tell us they feel under real pressure at school to be a success. Tragically, some even take their own life because they think they are not successful. Teachers are performance managed by results – the results of their young people. Schools are judged by Ofsted on the success of their young people. 

Parents too don't want to see their children fail. I know I didn't. With the best of intentions, we want to shelter our kids from disappointment and heartache and want them to experience that euphoria of success, and of winning.  

But the reality is of course that kids actually need to fail because it builds resilience and coping strategies. We know that resilient young people are better able to handle life's challenges, take the knocks, ride the punches, see the bigger picture, build and maintain positive relationships and take these skills into adulthood. The disappointment and heartache we want to shield them from actually build these skills. 

Business seems to have caught on. 

Photo used under CC license from

Photo used under CC license from

Where failure was once ‘not an option’ it now seems that more and more businesses are encouraging failure. The Steve Jobs’ mantra “stay hungry, stay foolish” seems to sit alongside another mantra “fail often, fail fast” for innovators, the ambitious and the entrepreneurs. 

There are many stories of highly successful people experiencing failure. J K Rowling was an unemployed, depressed single mother who described herself as ‘the biggest failure she knew.’ She now describes how rock bottom became the ‘solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.’ Richard Branson, weighed down by dyslexia and poor performance at school, was told by his headteacher that he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire. Even Paul McGee, the ‘SUMO Guy’ who is so influential to the work of HeadStart, tells the story of how his SUMO book was rejected by 13 publishers before going on to be a bestseller. 

So, I think we should teach kids that failure isn’t fatal but learning. That not only is failure inevitable, it is a great learning tool. Show them how it pushed successful people onto bigger and better things. The key is fail smarter. To harness failure. To set out to succeed and give it everything, but to accept that if failure comes there will be a whole bunch of learning alongside which will make success that bit clearer next time, and increase the determination. 

The biggest lesson might just be that to give up is the one sure way to fail.