Below is an email I received from Dr. Robert Porter who teaches our capstone course. He took up the challenge to begin our failure competition last year. We had 177 entries and more than 800 votes were cast on-line to determine the winner among our four semi-finalists. As we prepared for this semester’s competition, Bob shared the following observations with me. They make for compelling reading and I hope they will be of great use to our students as they prepare for this round of competition…..
You are a champion of the idea that exploring failure is a key learning opportunity for our students. I shared this idea last semester in a challenge to my students in their capstone/applied strategy course – to share their experiences regarding their own challenges. During that semester I was asked by a student, “Is failure the best teacher in life?” While I personally don’t think it is always the best teacher, I do think it creates one of the most powerful learning opportunities we can experience. I think a good way to view this process is to recognize that learning to succeed is often the result of a personal change driven by one’s failure.
One of my greatest learning experiences in life was when I failed my physical exam to enter the US Naval Academy. The Academy represented a chance to get an incredible college education, and serve my country in repayment. My grandfather was a Naval Academy graduate, and as a result I was eligible for a Presidential Appointment to the Academy. The appointment process to an Academy is a rigorous examination process. I spent two years in high school going through the interviews, taking the qualification exams, and ultimately I received the Presidential Appointment contingent upon a physical exam. My physical exam came during my senior year in high school. The exam was conducted at a naval base by navy doctors and it took a full day. I learned at the end of the exam that due to a childhood injury to my hip when I was 10, which landed me in a home for crippled children for a year, I would most likely have severe arthritis about the time that I graduated from the Academy. As a result, I was rejected and my Presidential Appointment was given to the next qualified candidate. I was devastated by the news. I was a high school senior with no good backup plan for college due to the near certainty of my appointment. I thought my entire future was based on going to the Naval Academy.
One of my most significant mentors in life was a man named Lew Treen. He was a war veteran, a gifted semi-pro baseball player, and a high school principal and coach. One thing he taught me was, “To learn is to change, and to change is to learn.” I called Lew Treen the day I was rejected to get his advice. His advice was to ‘learn from this, build on it, and move forward.’
I wound up attending UCF to obtain my engineering undergraduate degree. This led to my career with General Electric, and many other very positive opportunities in my life. I learned that major setbacks in life, with a great deal of work, can be converted into very positive new directions. Success is not automatic in life, even if you have a Presidential endorsement. You have to learn how to succeed. Failure guides you on what you need to change when you don’t succeed.
I propose we set a challenge for our students along these lines -to paraphrase Lew Treen, “Learning to succeed can be the result of change driven by failure.” While I think exploring experiences related to failure may encourage students to press through their challenges, I think that positioning the failure exercise to focus on how students have learned from these failures or how they used them as a platform to succeed makes this challenge focus on an individual’s growth that results from change. It essentially transforms the exercise from articulating one’s failure into the process of learning and growing from it. Everyone fails at something at one point or another in life, and if we are able to approach these situations with the perspective that we can learn and grow from them, then they are not failures after all, but learning ultimately how to change and then succeed.
As a side note, when I was 30, I needed a total hip replacement just to be able to walk – the Navy doctors were right.
Bob Porter, PhD