It may seem odd for a group of first-year students at Princeton University to start their academic careers by talking about failure. To hear visiting lecturer John Danner tell it, though, it may be the most important thing to learn as students begin college.
“Failure’s like gravity,” Danner said. “Failure is a force and fact of nature and the human condition. You can try to deny it, you can try to defy it, but if you do, you’re preventing yourself from learning the one thing that failure is uniquely good at. It shows you where you’ve been mistaken. It shows you what you don’t know.”
Danner, a best-selling author and business adviser, teaches a seminar for first-year students at Princeton called “Failure: The Other ‘F’ Word” – Success and Innovation’s Sibling?” that deals with how to respond to failure. The course draws heavily from Danner’s book – also titled “The Other ‘F’ Word” – and similar resources to teach 15 Princeton students a semester-long lesson about utilizing failure to positive ends.
Failure first became a topic of interest for Danner when he noticed the percentage of startup companies that went out of business. According to Danner’s 2015 TEDx Talk, 70 percent of all startup companies go out of business within their first 18 months. Danner soon found that failure prevailed in other areas of life too; he said that 88 percent of people break their New Year’s resolutions and 99 percent of all U.S. patents never make money for their owner. Even Michael Jordan missed 52 percent of his NBA shots.
Fear of ending up among the ranks of those statistics drives students away from intellectual risk, Danner said. “Conformity is prized more than creativity,” he said. “The search for praise or adulation and recognition begins to trump the desire for experimentation and trying things out in the classroom.”
While Danner calls failure “democratic” in nature, a phenomenon that affects everyone regardless of education, students at Princeton and other top schools who are top achievers be especially adverse to learning from it.
“In some cases for very high-achieving students entering college, they may be less comfortable in acknowledging failure,” Danner said. “They may be more fearful of it because of the stigma they think is associated with it. In some cases, their own repertoire for dealing with it is not yet as fully developed or as fully practiced as it might be for an older person.”
It’s why Danner will sit down with students for three hours every week in a class to discuss failure. He did much the same thing at his TEDx talk, where he asked members of the crowd to introduce themselves to each other by talking about a time when they failed at something.
“If failure is never talked about, if failure is never acknowledged, you lose the unique capacity failure offers to show you where you’ve been wrong…it ‘s an important topic and an important thing to acknowledge,” Danner said.
A lot of people students seem to agree with Danner. In each fall semester the class has been held, the ratio of applicants to available spots is more than three to one. When Danner thinks of teaching these students, he recalls how the freshman seminar he took at Harvard affected his life.
“My freshman seminar was one of the most powerful experiences I had in four years at Harvard,” he said. “I know that it could be a wonderful anchor, if you will, for your first year of college. I was just delighted I could do this…it’s the kind of thing I wish I had myself.”
Even with all of Danner’s previous work on failure, he said teaching the seminar has taught him new things about himself.
“I’m very comfortable with talking about failure now — in the classroom, in front of an audience, in a book, in casual conversations. My own comfort level with it has increased dramatically. I have also come to deeply respect the power that the fear of failure exerts on so many individuals.”