Why Failure is the Best Teacher

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Originally posted on November 13, 2014.

Success is mystery. What is it? How do we achieve it? And why does it often fail to live up our expectations? Success puzzles us because we don’t appreciate failure.

In “What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars,” University of Kentucky alum and multimillionaire Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan suggest that there are a million ways to succeed. If you want to earn more money, you can start a business or sell a business. To improve your mental health, you can get hired or resign. One person’s path to weight loss will be paved with fruit and no fat; another person’s caveman diet will encourage fat consumption to lose weight. The point is that there are at least as many ways to succeed as there are people on the planet.

This is good and bad news. The good news is that everyone can find a unique path to success. The bad news is that your unique path won’t teach you much about success. To learn how to succeed, you must learn why you fail and how to avoid it.

This topic is near and dear to my heart. Last weekend, I completed the Javelina Jundred 100 mile ultramarathon. It was my best race yet. I knocked well over an hour off of my personal record time. Throughout the race, I felt good and ran a steady pace. After the race, I was happy and calm. (For proof, see my finishing picture.)


Failure was the key to my success. Two times earlier this year, I failed to finish 100 mile races. Both times I got sick and the medical team pulled me. Last weekend, I didn’t focus on how to run faster. Instead, I concentrated on how to avoid the things that caused me to lose out on finishing those earlier races. By learning from failure, I could achieve my definition of success. 

I don’t know why failure is great learning medicine. One reason is that bad is stronger than good. When we fail, it grabs our attention more than success. Others argue that there are only a few ways to fail. Either way, failure is a great teacher that we should embrace instead of fear.

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”