Failure Is the Hardest Thing To Learn

This is part of a series of reflections inspired by my courses at HBX, an online business school cohort powered by Harvard Business School. With Business Analytics, Economics for Managers, and Financial Accounting, I'm learning the fundamentals of business. Find the whole series here.


The word burns even to say it. It stings. It's a slap in the face. Confronting the beast of failure puts a pit in your stomach.

It is, by far, the hardest thing to learn.

"Fail fast, fail hard," has become a cliche of the innovative, lean world of startups. But that idea completely skips over human nature. We don't want to fail. More than anything, we don't want to fail. It's human nature to internalize failure as something wrong with us. Something wrong with our character, our personality, or us as a person, rather than looking at the bigger picture.  

I'm a beginning skiier (cross country, that is) and I hate hills. I hate going up and I hate going down. I hate them because I fall. And I fall. And I fall. 

That sucks.

But with each fall, I learn something new about how to ski. I know if I let myself visualize the falls, that's what will happen. So I stay optimistic that the next hill, I'll get it right, Because the worst thing that will happen is that I'll fall, right? And I've done that before.

Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we will have to choose between what is easy and what is right.
— Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

With business and with life, that idea isn't so easy. The stakes are higher when "falling" means losing your life savings. We choose the easy path, the safe path, the punch-in-and-punch-out path. We waste our lives away worrying about what could happen, rather than letting ourselves take the leap. We refuse to remember that failing is learning---it's learning to fail and fail well that's the hard part. 

"Failing well" may seem like an oxymoron. It goes back to the "fail fast" mentality: if we learn to bounce back from our mistakes, learn from them, and move on--to bigger and better things--we can ultimately create something better than we could have when we started. We forget that real change requires incremental steps, one day at a time.

Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply processing them.
— Brene Brown, Rising Strong

I'm not saying anyone can do this. Or that anyone is good at it. What I'm saying is, the challenge of learning to fail is one worth taking. If we don't learn how to fall, we'll never be able to get back up. 

Find the whole series here. You can learn more about HBX, the platform, and what it has to offer here.