Learning to Fail Better

Could “failure classes” teach us all a lesson?

Cambridge elly nowell failure failure lessons Learning to Fail Better Miranda Johnson Oxbridge Oxford oxford university rejection schools teaching wimbledon

A new initiative at Wimbledon High School offers its girls a seemingly perverse solution to encouraging success: ‘Failure Week’. Pupils in Wimbledon will attend lectures, workshops and seminars on underachievement. Teachers and parents have been specifically invited to share their own experiences of failure.

The idea of  ‘Failure Week’ may seem novel, but I doubt it will work. In the words of Oscar Wilde “nothing that is worth knowing can be taught”.

…let me get what I want. 

We are members of a University whose binary accept/reject admissions policy condemns many as ‘failures’. Elly Nowell’s letter to Magdalen College in the Other Place attempted to invert popular conceptions of success in December 2011, emphasizing for a brief time that achievement can be relative.

She has no place at Magdalen, but she managed to comment on dichotomous views of success and failure in a national newspaper.

Like Elly Nowell, I failed to earn a place at Oxford. Unlike Elly Nowell, it took a while for me to talk about my REJECTION, let alone capitalize it in an article. The letter that informed me of my disappointment actually arrived as an email attachment, and subsequently entered the public domain without my knowledge.

Everyone knowing, and my assumption that everyone cared, was perhaps worse than the rejection itself. Failure is best kept a dirty little secret, right?

I went to a school that encouraged success at any cost – to have suggested the possibility of failure would have been to invite it. My fruitless application taught me my first lesson about inadequacy. Where I let myself down was in thinking that failure itself was unacceptable and irredeemable.

On the one hand this story is in the three-year process of ending happily. On the other, I have definitely received an internship rejection in the last hour.

I wish Wimbledon High every success with its initiative: admitting and attesting to underachievement is a bold step within the pressures of a school environment. But ultimately failure requires more personal reflection, and only then a public response.