When I was a freshman at Carroll College, the Student Body President, gave a welcome speech to our entire freshman class. I don’t remember much of her speech, but I remember that it was a smattering of advice, encouragement, and humor. The only specific phrase that I remember her saying is, “I challenge you to fail at something.” At the time, I remember thinking that was some interesting advice. I’m sure that there was some really good justification and logic that she included in her speech as to why we should “fail at something”. However, I remember thinking to myself, “I wonder what my parents are going to say when I try to tell them not to worry about me failing multivariable calculus, because the Student Body President told me to fail at something. ha… yeah right.” Anyways, after that day, I’m sure I failed at a few things here and there, but I don’t ever remember feeling good about those failures.

Recently, the topic of failure has come up in a number of books and conversations I have been having with my colleagues. Naturally, this little nugget of advice — “I challenge you to fail at something” —  came back to me. [Quick side note: Because, I have been told it is better to say things in a controversial statements if you want people to engage your content] I’m going to step out on a limb and say that that advice is one of the worst things you could say to freshman in college. Here’s why:

  1. If you are going to tell someone to fail, fine. But, to challenge someone to fail, that doesn’t make any sense to me. When you “challenge” someone to do something that implies that you are asking them to do something that is difficult. Failing isn’t difficult, it is really easy. Even babies no how to fail, in fact they fail all the time. Rather than challenge someone to fail, I would challenge someone to embrace failure.
  2. If you tell someone to fail at something, you might as well not be telling them to fail at all. That implies that you are telling them to fail just one time. “Hey Johnny, you should try to fail at something, and if you are a real dare devil maybe you can fail twice!” As soon as you fail at something, you have completed her challenge, and you can go on with the rest of your college career and life as you would have before.

If I were going to rephrase this advice for freshmen in college today, I would say something along the lines on Andrew Stanton’s view of failure. That is, that we should embrace failure. In fact, he is known for saying “Fail often, and fail early. Fail as fast as you can.” (Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull)

The reason this simple advice is so brilliant is because if we are afraid of failure, or we think that we need to hide our failures it cripples our potential. There are so many things in life that practically require failure to actually learn them. For example, riding a bike. Stanton says that when you are learning to ride a bike the best thing to do is find a bike that is as low to the ground as possible, put on elbow and knee pads (so you aren’t afraid of falling), and GO! I think this simple analogy has some extreme parallels with growing a business and progressing in your career.

I have come to love the idea of failing. I push my colleague to do the same. I would hope that if any SkEye team member were to tell a freshmen in college some advice today, they would say something like this, “Fail all the time, push yourself, try things that you don’t think you can do, shoot for the stars, fail everyday, because it is only through your failure that you learn, grow, and discover what you are really capable of becoming.”