Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of it

Today, I’d like to share a fascinating discovery I made this week, without taking up much of your time. I have a profound interest in the concept of failure, not because of any sadistic tendencies, but because I believe it is at the core of our successes. In the past I’ve written about my fascination with failure (here and here). Lately, I’ve been exploring ways to incorporate the idea of failure into our professional practices. In pursuit of this goal, I requested our Teaching and Learning Librarian to acquire the Failure Tool, a resource designed to teach the art of failing successfully.

I intend to reflect on this tool in a future blog post.

Although we haven’t had a chance to try out the tool yet since it just arrived, I’m eagerly looking forward to exploring the strategies it employs to teach failure effectively.

This week, I came across an intriguing article in the Harvard Business Review by Amy C. Edmondson, titled “Strategies for Learning from Failure.” The article introduced a compelling visualization called the “Spectrum of Reasons for Failure,” which categorizes reasons for failure from praiseworthy to blameworthy. While I won’t delve into every reason for failure mentioned in the visualization, I want to focus on the two most extreme points.

Exploratory testing

On the praiseworthy end of the spectrum, we find “exploratory testing.” This type of failure involves conducting experiments to expand knowledge and explore possibilities, even if they lead to undesired outcomes. At our institution, we’ve initiated Teaching Sharing sessions, providing a safe space to experiment with new teaching methods. For instance, a colleague and I recently tried a novel approach to teaching generative AI and how libraries can speak to the need for critical information literacy skills, fully embracing the idea of potential failure in front of our peers.


On the other end of the spectrum, we encounter “deviance,” a blameworthy type of failure where someone consciously violates established processes or practices, seeking to cause harm despite knowing it goes against norms. However, I believe these failures need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. For example, if a colleague advises against teaching generative AI, I might challenge that norm not out of a desire to be deviant but because I believe we might lack the necessary skills or information to teach it effectively in the context of library instruction. In essence, I see it as an opportunity for exploratory testing, albeit slightly fits into the deviant category at first glance.

The subject of failure never ceases to captivate me; I firmly believe in the valuable learning outcomes that arise from it. Over time, we have been conditioned to avoid failure, but I take a different approach. When working with faculty members, I express a willingness to “try something new” and acknowledge the possibility of a “marvellous failure.” By doing so, I demonstrate my dedication to instilling meaningful learning experiences in our students.

As I continue to explore this topic, I’m excited about the potential of embracing failure and its transformative power in our professional journey.”

Header photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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