Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

9 Reasons Why Failure Is Not Fatal

Failure. Fear of it is universal, experiencing it is inevitable, and running from it is dependably routine. As a culture we can’t seem to shake the negativity of the term – even though most success stories have a shared foundation in some kind of accidental realization, wrong-footed first attempt, or outright error. Here, we pool our favorite videos and articles on the subject as a gentle reminder that our only real failure is to live life without it.

1. Kathryn Schulz: On Being Wrong

This brief TED talk by “Wrongologist” and author Kathryn Schulz cleverly covers the inescapable error of the human mind – and the beautiful results of its imperfection.

2. Sir James Dyson: Failure Doesn’t Suck

The US’s bestselling vacuum isn’t just a perfect example of rethinking the norm, it’s the happy result of failure – 5,126 of them. The relentless inventor behind the company comes clean in this interview, attributing his comfy relationship with getting it wrong to finally getting it right.

You once described the inventor’s life as “one of failure.” How so?

I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative.

Not all failures lead to solutions, though. How do you fail constructively?

We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It’s exciting, actually. To me, solving problems is a bit like a drug. You’re on it, and you can’t get off. I spent seven years on our washing machine [which has two drums, instead of one].

3. Paulo Coelho: On the Fear of Failure

Brazilian lyricist and novelist Paulo Coehlo shares his personal views on confidence in the face of critical response. This comes from a series of awesome videos on failure from Berghs’ Exhibition 2011. We highly recommend the watching the lot of them.

4. Twyla Tharp: Real Change Involves Failure

One of America’s most celebrated living choreographers, Twyla Tharp is also a keen observer of the creative habit – in fact, she wrote the book on it. From Tharp’s point of view, failure is a natural part of the path to innovation. Here’s an excerpt from an excellent interview with the Harvard Business Review:

The business literature nowadays talks a lot about the need for failure in the pursuit of excellence. Do you accept that?

Of course I do. Sooner or later, all real change involves failure—but not in the sense that many people understand failure. If you do only what you know and do it very, very well, chances are that you won’t fail. You’ll just stagnate, and your work will get less and less interesting, and that’s failure by erosion. True failure is a mark of accomplishment in the sense that something new and different was tried. Ideally, the best way to fail is in private. In my office, the ratio of failure to success on the dances I create is probably something like six to one. I create about six times more material for my dances than I end up using in the final piece. But I need that unused material to get my one success. I have also sometimes failed in public, and that’s very painful. But failing, even in this way, is not useless. It can force you to get yourself together and to produce something new.

5. Seth Godin: How the Lizard Brain Holds Us Back


In this classic talk from the inaugural 99U Conference, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin talks about the lizard brain, the root of the primal doubts that drive us to sabotage creative projects before we ever show them to the world.

6. Jamer Hunt: Six Types of Failure, Only a Few Help You Innovate

Playing devil’s advocate to an upbeat view of failure, educator Jamer Hunt takes a look at the shades of gray, separating the truly beneficial mistakes from those failures that might indicate a darker, deeper flaw – for instance, the BP oil spill.

Abject failure

This is the really dark one. It marks you and you may not ever fully recover from it. People lose their lives, jobs, respect, or livelihoods. Examples: British Petroleum’s Gulf oil spill; mortgage-backed securities.

Structural failure

It cuts — deeply — but it doesn’t permanently cripple your identity or enterprise. Examples: Apple iPhone 4’s antenna; Windows Vista.

Glorious failure

Going out in a botched but beautiful blaze of glory — catastrophic but exhilarating. Example: Jamaican bobsled team.

Common failure

Everyday instances of screwing up that are not too difficult to recover from. The apology was invented for this category. Examples: oversleeping and missing a meeting at work; forgetting to pick up your kids from school; overcooking the tuna.

Version failure

Small failures that lead to incremental but meaningful improvements over time. Examples: Linux operating system; evolution.

Predicted failure

Failure as an essential part of a process that allows you to see what it is you really need to do more clearly because of the shortcomings. Example: the prototype — only by creating imperfect early versions of it can you learn what’s necessary to refine it.

7. Gillian Welch: On Rolling with the Punches

Sometimes the things we call failures are really just lessons in letting go. In this video, acclaimed musicians Gillian Welch and David Rawlings collaborate with an artist and a specialty printing group to make an album cover, learning to conspire with their changing circumstances along the way.

8. Tim Harford: Trial, Error and the God Complex


Economics writer Tim Harford believes that all great leaps forward emerge through trial and error. In this TED talk, he articulates the challenges of admitting our own fallibility. Rather than striving to be an all-knowing God, he argues that we should strive to make good mistakes.

9. J.K. Rowling: The Fringe Benefits of Failure

In this now-legendary commencement address, the inimitable J.K. Rowling discusses how failure, while certainly not fun, helps us strip away the inessential so that we can focus our energies on what really matters.

More insights on: Failure, Iteration, Risk-Taking

Carmel Hagen

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Carmel Hagen is the founder and CEO of Sweet Revenge Sugar Co., a company developing mindfully delicious alternatives to refined sugar. For creative kitchen inspiration and mixologist tips, follow Sweet Revenge on Instagram at @enjoyrevenge or visit
load comments (23)
  • Mike Wagner

    Wow! What a wonder-filled post full of resources that any one with an idea worth acting on would value. Thanks for gathering in one place all of this insight.

    Keep creating…with abandon,

  • Happybunny

    I’m with James Hunt here. Failure (in the sense of trial and error) clearly has its place, particularly in innovation, but I don’t see the benefit in embracing it as some sort of all-encompassing value. Do you really want your mom’s heart surgeon, or the maintenance crew on your next flight, to pursue failure? Anthony Weiner and John Edwards epicly failed, and it didn’t seem to bring them much benefit.

  • TubbyMike

    I think that there is a subtle but very important division between the pursuit of failure in innovation and routine activities. Your Mum’s heart surgeon and the flight maintenance crew aren’t trying to innovate: they’re trying their best to get a known procedure dead right. Sir James Dyson and Twyla Tharp are trying to do new things. Failure in one circumstance is deleterious and in the second beneficial. When surgeons innovate to find a better way of treating people they experience failure too. Sadly, that means some premature deaths of patients. Some patients are willing to be guinea pigs for radical surgery because, sadly, their conditions are so life threatening they have little to lose. That’s how most surgical procedures get pioneered.
    Mr. Hunt may be correct in his classification of failure, but we can even learn from his “abject” class as a society. That is to never let those abject failures happen again. If we don’t learn those lessons then we as a people, have also failed. The next time some glib financier tries to tell us that securities backed by risky mortgages on homes where there is no obvious income will make us all buckets of money, we should treat that idea with the contempt that it deserves.

  • Geoff Talbot

    I love the Jk Rowling Speech. Amazing!

    Failure is not an enemy but a friend to success. Failure teaches us about what fails. I understand so much the family dynamic from which she comes.

    Failure and Poverty suck.

    Keep hoping


  • Douglas Green

    This is a wonderful resource. I posted it at I also recommend the book “Better By Mistake” by Alena Tugend. You can start with my summary at Keep up the good work. Douglas W. Green, EdD

  • jmcaddell

    Carmel, thank you for linking to my MIstake Bank post on Gillian Welch. If your readers are interested in reading more about learning from mistakes and failure, they may be interested in checking out the site – – where there are 150+ articles on the topic, including discussions many of the ones you cite here.


  • jkglei

    Hi John, We have you in the 99% Google Reader feed, so we see all your stuff. ; ) Keep up the great work. Best -Jocelyn

  • Jaym Esch

    There’s a missing link in here: Failure as a result of others’ actions.

    I was an award winning virtual reality developer, always the best in every company I worked for. However, I was abused at four different companies for hours worked due to inappropriate deadlines, and eventually a victim of office politics from hostile workers merged in from another company branch.  At no point did I perform an action that was at fault or resulted in a mistake, but I lost that career due to those people’s actions, both those playing office politics and the inept managers scheduling year long projects to be finished in two months.

    Even without being responsible, I am now the very definition of failure- I’ve been unemployed 8 3/4 years since that last position. I no longer have a skill set, yet I can not go into debt for schooling (not that schooling is a guarantee of learning anything viable for a new career) and am ineligible for a free ride, which is the option available for me. I’m stuck at a relative’s, I have no bank accounts, few of my possessions left, no car and no life. I shudder to think what things would be like if I WAS responsible for a failure of some kind. Things could hardly be worse.

    To add to the problem, I have generalized anxiety disorder, which is not a failure on my part (genetics never is), but I can not get proper treatment for it under the current for-profit US healthcare system. No income and no insurance = no access to a psychologist or psychiatrist. So I’m stuck in a situation where I can not get aid from anyone in moving forward on finding a new career I’m capable of doing- as my anxiety disorder strictly limits what I can do. I’ve been denied disability, and have no options left to pursue in terms of aid. Career experts don’t understand anxiety, counselors and social workers aren’t career experts (and don’t know more than me regarding my anxiety disorder.)

    Since I’m approaching 40, without any career and no life in place, I’m basically facing a situation where it is too late to fix anything. Life goes downhill drastically after 40, so what has happened to me may very well end up being fatal-  there’s not much reason to live if you’ve been alone and unemployed for a decade and a half with no options available to you.

    There’s a tendency for people to ignore the impact- and the damages- others can cause you. But I’m living proof that you can do nothing wrong, and yet become a failure based on the actions of society or other people.  It’s a very important lesson to point out.

  • Dr. Dean

    Jaym, You sound like a joy to be around. You are arrogant to think you’ve never done anything wrong. You came to the internet for pity. That’s failure. Nobody will hand you healthcare or an education, go find something you’re good at and quit waiting for a handout. And smile more. -Dr. Dean

  • professional resume

    thanks for the post! liked it!

  • Dr. Bean

    Wow, you’re an asshole.

  • friarminor

    Got inspired to do a prezi about it. Congratulations, You Failed!

  • ArgentOunce

    Hey men, I hope you find a reason to stay alive, that’s a very sad story. I used to think that the fault wasn’t mine when I got abused by people or work, but I really believe that I have responsability for what I decided to say yes, and say no. This world is insane, and there is no big difference in 2000+ years or more if we are talking about evolution. We re the same animals, we fight to survive, over and over. Im a INTJ so, i know what anxiety you feel. You don’t need pills, I repeat, you don’t need pills. Just balls, my friend, balls to face this savage world. 

  • Anna Roberts

    While doing research on managing the creative process, I was impressed by Pixar’s focus on recovery (not avoidance of) from failure in hiring and training their staff, prizing adaptability and resilience. Truly creative output means pushing boundaries, taking risks and failing sometimes. Creative firms are wise to create a culture that allows this to happen.

  • Pindshav

    Well, first at like to thank you for this post, it was very inspiring and interesting. I wrote about my own experience with “failing” based on the speech by J.K Rowling and it ended up being freshly pressed on wordpress, giving me the most exposure I’ve ever had.

    Thank you!

  • Rob

    Hey Friend,
    Life is just beginning. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is an excellent book by Donald Miller. The basic concept is that we should try and live a life worth writing about. Why is the Rowling story so powerful? Because of where she came from. Society loves the underdog. Give us something to cheer about. Give yourself something to cheer about. Get busy living the second half, and then, write about it. We want to read it. 

  • Roger Ellman

    Well done – a contribution to the realization (I hope for all) that all fear is to be jumped over/dissolved or resolved.

    Success by getting across failing, is universal.

    Well done also for collecting a neat package of examples and inspirers on this subject.

  • isabel.jdd

    Amazing what really paying attention to what is being said here can do for you. Life pushes you in all directions but making moments like this and what you have felt after reading this stay with you forever, will help you focus your efforts towards clearer goals! may you fail, learn and succeed!

  • research papers

    Good information. Thank you!!!

  • Dunning
    Just to extend this topic…

  • Guesto

    Yeah, like 9 stories of failure that eventually turned to success can balance out the millions of stories of failures that remained failures and led to lives being destroyed.

  • C

    If I were you, I would do more research to find an organization that could help you get the medicine that you want. I do know that there are organizations out there that provide extremely cheap counseling (who knows..there may be some out there that don’t even cost 4 dollars a session). While counselors are not career counselors, they may provide you with alternative perspectives and will possibly make you feel better about yourself. Find a job and/or paid internship. Apply to programs that will offer you scholarships. If you have a BA, then you can apply to Ph.D programs and see if you will get funding from them, not the government. Keep trying..and try new things.

  • C

    Also, I say this as someone in my 20s.. I don’t think 40 years old is OLD. If you were 80, then I’d say, sure you’re old.. Either age group, you should still find something to live for! Good luck.

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