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Princeton to teach students about the upside of failure

In this age of helicopter parenting and participation trophies, apparently the millennial generation needs to be taught it’s OK to fail, that life’s stumbling blocks can be one of the best teaching tools for personal and professional growth.

Princeton University this fall will offer a class to freshmen called “The “Other ‘F’ Word — Success and Innovation’s Sibling?” The F word in question is failure, which the Ivy League university’s website points out is “like gravity — a subtle, pervasive but invaluable fact of life.”

“Princeton students are quite appropriately and understandably focused, if not actually fixated, on success — in the classroom, on the athletic field, and for their emerging careers. But success has a less well-understood sibling, which is often a precursor and even prerequisite for that success, whether in business, science, athletics, or the arts: failure,” the online class description notes.

“Although we may treat failure as a regrettable event, it has the potential to become a strategic resource, invaluable in its ability to show us — sometimes painfully and usually uncomfortably — what we don’t yet know but need to in order to succeed in our chosen objective,” it adds.

Fittingly, students are warned “this will not be a ‘pass/fail’ seminar.”

The class is offered as a voluntary freshman seminar. Such first-year seminars are often esoteric in nature, and typically hone in on narrow and unique topics and aim to introduce students to college-level inquiry and discourse.

Princeton’s seminar will be taught by John Danner, co-author of a 2015 book by the same name: “The Other ‘F’ Word: How Smart Leaders, Teams, and Entrepreneurs Put Failure to Work.” The idea is to learn from one’s mistakes and put them to work, argued Danner in a 2015 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal focused on the business world.

“Failure is a strategic resource,” he pointed out. “… Failure is reality’s way of showing you what you don’t yet know, but need to learn. It contains the seeds of precisely the insight you’ve been looking for, if you have the honesty and humility to explore those secrets.”

Danner said in a May 2015 interview that as he taught at Princeton he “realized that students, particularly those pursuing careers in innovation where failure would be a fact of life, would benefit from discussing the topic candidly.” He added the subject also became fodder for an MBA class at Berkeley, where he also teaches.

A UC Berkeley websites reports the “The Other ‘F’ Word” has “been adopted as a textbook for several entrepreneurial courses.”

The New York Times, in a recent feature, cited programs at Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania that chronicle setbacks and stumbling blocks of successful alumni as a means of encouragement.

And recently Smith College, a top-ranked liberal arts school for women, rolled out a program called “Failing Well.” The initiative helps students grapple with life’s challenges.

“We’re not talking about flunking out of pre-med or getting kicked out of college,” Rachel Simmons, the program’s facilitator, told The New York Times. “We’re talking about students showing up in residential life offices distraught and inconsolable when they score less than an A-minus. Ending up in the counseling center after being rejected from a club. Students who are unable to ask for help when they need it, or so fearful of failing that they will avoid taking risks at all.”

MORE: Women’s college offers program to help students cope with disappointment

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.