This fall, I talked with some Georgia Tech undergraduate students about Peter Sims’ book: “Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries.” Sims defines a little bet as a low-risk action to test an idea, and he explains that small wins are ideal for building momentum and identifying problems and opportunities.
What really caught my attention, though, was Sims’ discussion of failure – and its upsides.
At Georgia Tech, we pride ourselves on our many successes, and the same goes for our students. Here in the College of Engineering, students worked hard to get where they are in fields that can be difficult, demanding and competitive. Many came to Georgia Tech accustomed to academic successes.
But with so much attention on the ultimate desired outcome – succeeding – I think we often lose sight of the importance of the proverbial journey. In talking with the students this year, I wanted them to shift their mindsets. To even become Tech students, they had to excel, and they did not fail at many things along the way. But that may not be helpful in the long run.
Failure has plenty of lessons to teach us. There are the obvious ones, of course – if you didn’t study enough for your test, you might do poorly, and (hopefully) you’ll know to work harder next time. But there’s usually more buried beneath the easy takeaway. When students fail at something, they are forced to reflect on themselves and their goals. And sometimes, their losses or mistakes can build resilience and offer perspective.
Even failures we are not directly responsible for can be valuable reminders that in life, we simply don’t always get everything we want. For young engineers used to academic achievements, this lesson can be powerful. Someday, even our brightest and most diligent students will miss out on awards, be passed over for promotions, or just make wrong decisions. Part of our job as educators is to prepare them for that and remind them that none of it means the end of the world.
With final exam season upon us, I want our students to understand that although failure may be disappointing, it’s almost always surmountable. Sometimes, the lessons it offers are exactly the tools we need to pave a new way forward. Fail fast, learn from it, and grow.