How to Fail Successfully

Not even the most brilliant businesswoman or talented athlete gets everything right. So what makes you think you should? The key is knowing how to turn today’s flop into tomorrow’s triumph. It’s easier than you might think

by Liza Mundy
shoe image
Photograph: Illustrated by Brian Rea

Not quite a decade ago, Maria Klawe, then the highly regarded dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University, was recruited to become the fifth president of Harvey Mudd College, an elite Southern California school specializing in science, engineering and math. Klawe’s recruiters at the college told her they wanted a bold and visionary leader—a change agent who would bring new thinking to the school and how it was run.

Klawe (pronounced KLAH-vay) took them at their word. She charged in and proposed new majors, such as science journalism, that faculty complained were nontraditional; created a senior leadership team that unnerved staffers who were not accustomed to working collaboratively; and generally underestimated the extent to which the academic community would resist her zealous efforts to execute her mission. She also answered questions in meetings so quickly that listeners felt she wasn’t being deliberative or thoughtful.

Now, when she gives speeches, “I often talk about what went wrong in my first year,” says Klawe, a frank, good-humored computer scientist who can hardly name all the innovations she proposed that freaked people out. Not that the outcry was unexpected: “There have been many times in my career when I pushed harder for change than most people were ready for.” At the University of British Columbia, for example, she felt that the department she headed, computer science, was drastically underfunded compared with the older, more established physical science departments. “I fought for this, and over time the budgets became more equitable—which those other departments resented enormously,” she says. By the time she landed at Harvey Mudd, she knew that when people object to your leadership, there’s no point in protesting. You need to try to recover, then find an effective path forward.

For Klawe, this meant working with an executive coach to develop a leadership style that was slower paced as well as more strategic and reflective. She learned to “seed” certain ideas by asking a like-minded colleague to propose the change rather than having it come from her. She trained herself to listen actively and avoid interrupting. “I learned how to be much less energetic and dynamic, a lot quieter,” says Klawe, who has been known to paint with watercolors in meetings to slow herself down. “It really took a huge change.” And her new approach was noticed: She says any number of faculty and board members have told her that because she accepted criticism on her first-year performance and set about transforming herself as a leader, they came to trust her immensely. Once she had their support, she began the process of taking a really good school and making it great. “I’m a big believer in failure,” Klawe says. “I don’t know of any successful person who hasn’t failed lots of times.”

[How to Fail Successfully: Picture Yourself Winning]

Could You Weather the Storm?
Klawe’s view of failure is symbolic of a broader trend in our culture. Far from being something shameful or harmful, failure is now understood as an experience to be valued and even sought, according to a chorus of academics and thought leaders. To attempt something difficult and fail at it shows that you are pushing past your existing skill set. Framed this way, failure is not a scarlet letter; it’s a sign that you’re on track to reach a new level of achievement. This notion is also gaining traction in the corporate world. The Harvard Business Review not too long ago devoted an entire issue to failure as a driver of creativity, urging managers to create cultures in which failure is seen as inevitable—even desirable—rather than undiscussable. In October, Dilbert creator Scott Adams came out with the book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Bigchronicling the string of failures he experienced before hitting a sweet spot with his comic strip.

If failure, played correctly, really leads to increased success, then women are natural beneficiaries. For example, one key way to recover is to reach out to people who support you, who will, as psychologist Pauline Rose Clance puts it, “soothe your horror” about whatever went wrong. Women typically are good at building networks, finding friends who can sympathize while helping to analyze the situation and figure out what part—if any—could have been avoided.

[How to Fail Successfully: Was it Your Fault?]

Women also rise above failure because they find validation in a variety of places. Unlike men, who tend to construct their identity around jobs and professional achievement, women’s sense of self rests on many girders—work, yes, but also family, community and friendship. The result: If (or, rather, when) failure occurs in one realm, women are less likely to feel that their identity has been completely shaken. “Women don’t fall as far down the failure hole,” says Pennsylvania-based psychologist Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety. And, she points out, the older and more experienced a woman gets, the more she takes failure in stride, seeing small setbacks in a larger context and even understanding that a failure along the way can contribute to one’s ultimate success.

[How to Fail Successfully: Take Two Hours to Cry]

Where women flunk failure
While gender generalizations can be tricky, studies suggest that women take missteps more personally than men do. Women tend to be “intropunitive,” blaming themselves for failure, whereas men are more likely to attribute failure to circumstance and the action of others. Women are also more likely to ruminate—returning to the same thought over and over and brooding on setbacks. The danger of doing this is that lapses get magnified and come to feel bigger than they are, increasing the temptation to retreat or even quit.

Psychologists and other workplace experts are also struck by the frequency with which women—especially successful ones—suffer from impostor syndrome, the feeling of being a fraud who’s just a step away from a catastrophic mistake that will reveal her true incompetence to the world. The impostor phenomenon was identified by Clance and a colleague, Suzanne Imes. Clance’s guidance counselor had warned her that doing well in high school was no guarantee that she’d thrive in college. Clance went forth believing she wouldn’t be able to succeed in a bigger pond. When she began to teach and counsel at Oberlin College, she noticed how many other women (and some men, especially minorities and those from nontraditional backgrounds) described the same feeling—maintaining a steadfast belief in their own inferiority. And success doesn’t necessarily bring confidence. Many accomplished women—such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, comedian Tina Fey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg—have acknowledged feeling like impostors.

Klawe has found impostor syndrome common among women in computer science. A few years ago, she and Kori Inkpen, a principal researcher at Microsoft, organized an “impostor” panel at a conference in Keystone, Colorado, convened for students and tech companies’ junior employees. The panel featured Klawe, Inkpen and three other prominent female tech leaders. When the panelists walked into a room that seated just over 100 people, they were amazed to see not only that every chair was occupied but also that young women were sitting on the floor, leaning against walls and wedging themselves into every last square inch of space. “There were people standing in the hallways, craning their necks to see us,” recalls Klawe.

Experts point out that women don’t feel this way because they are innately anxious or insecure. Rather, it’s a reality that in a number of fields, women are judged more harshly when they miss the mark. “The bar is often set higher in terms of performance standards for women,” says Linda Carli, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, pointing to a body of social science that documents the “glass cliff” phenomenon, in which women are given assignments that have a high chance of failure. Studies have suggested that women are more likely to be given problematic cases by law firms, recruited for tougher seats in political elections or brought in to lead companies only when there’s big trouble (think Marissa Mayer at Yahoo). In these cases, their failure is not only more likely but also more visible. Not all studies of the glass-cliff effect have confirmed that it exists. But Eric Ries, an entrepreneur and author who is well versed in the culture of Silicon Valley, says he has sat through enough corporate meetings to find it “totally believable that we have set up a system where women have a higher cost of failure and are right to be afraid of it.”

[7 Ways to Fail Successfully]

Bouncing back
But even if women’s fear of failure is a logical reaction to a judgmental workplace, they still need to cope with it.

The most important step, says Clance, is to cultivate your own resilience: Remind yourself that nobody has ever died from failure. On the flip side, she stresses acknowledging your successes and believing the good things people say about you (which women often don’t). It’s also possible to change the culture in which you are being asked to function. She cites one patient, a young physician just getting started in her career, who was terrified of missing a diagnosis. Clance worked with the doctor to dial back her schedule so she would feel less harried. She helped this woman actively change her environment rather than passively accept it, and thus alleviate her fears.

And slowly, as these issues become more visible, the culture itself could change. Leaders like Klawe are working hard to establish supportive environments where women—and men—can take risks safely. When undergraduates enroll at Harvey Mudd, Klawe makes sure they learn how to handle failure. She talks about the importance of working in teams, of seeking help and giving help to others. She tells them to create “a community of people who are going to support you no matter what.” And she tells them to understand that failure will happen. If you build in an understanding that adversity will occur—if you accept that it’s natural for things to be hard—you are less thrown off when that turns out to be true. 

Next: Turning Your Private Passion into a Career

Want MORE? Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Try MORE on your iPad—FREE. Find out how at

First Published Thu, 2013-10-31 10:48

Find this story at: