Many members of the science and technology community are inspired by the startup mantra “fail fast and fail often.” They aim to remain calm and resolute when their experiments go awry, startups dissolve, and problem sets occasionally go unfinished.
When it comes to the lived experience of navigating setbacks, however, many end up failing at failing. They internalize the experience and treat failure as a reflection of their abilities, rather than an unavoidable part of life, necessary for personal growth.
This very human tendency was the inspiration for FAIL!, an event series committed to destigmatizing failure. MIT graduate and visiting students Francesco Benedetti, Chengzhao Zhang, Giannandrea Inchingolo, David Rolnick, Tanja Mueller, Simone Bruno, Luca Alfeo, Stefano Deluca, and Sandra Rothenbuecher founded FAIL! in spring 2018. To date, there have been three FAIL! conferences held at MIT, drawing sold-out crowds of 350-400 people.
At each conference, prominent scholars from MIT and Harvard University share 10-minute stories of personal, academic, and professional failures, followed by a Q&A session with the audience. By learning of the challenges and missteps of highly successful people, the organizers hope to reduce the discouragement and isolation attendees may feel when confronted with their own failures.
Fail! was funded by the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund, a grant program supporting projects that advance mental health, community, diversity, and inclusion at MIT. The series was also supported by the Division of Student Life, MIT Sandbox, MIT VISTA, MIT Graduate Student Council, and MITell.
What it means to fail
MIT professor of computer science Daniel Jackson, who recently published a book on resilience at MIT, opened this April’s FAIL! Conference by reflecting on the different types of failure. “There’s what I call ‘little-f failure’ and ‘big-F failure,’” he said. “Little-f failure is when you do something and you screw it up … Big-F failure is when your whole life comes to nothing.”
Big-F failures, he noted, are relatively rare, although fear of them can lead people to avoid taking worthwhile risks and limit their ability to lead full, meaningful lives. “Talking about fear and failure is the key to changing ourselves and the culture in which we live,” said Jackson, emphasizing the importance of events like FAIL! that create spaces to explore these topics.
Professor of humanities, sociology, and anthropology Susan Silbey, who was recently awarded MIT’s highest faculty honor, the Killian Award, spoke after Jackson. Although Silbey has had a celebrated career with seemingly few little-f failures, she struggled to find direction and mentorship as a graduate student.
“I started my PhD two months after I graduated college,” said Silbey. “In 1962 there weren’t very many women who joined PhD programs at the University of Chicago. That was quite extraordinary in that year. What was more extraordinary is that I did not graduate until 1978. Sixteen years. That is not the career of a star: That is a failure.” Silbey credited her eventual success to her love of learning and research, regardless of the topic she was studying.
Harvard Medical School professor of genetics George Church spoke at the FAIL! Conference held in November 2018. Those who know him as a founding father of synthetic biology would be surprised to learn that he spent six months homeless and failed out of graduate school at Duke University prior to being accepted to a PhD program at Harvard University, where he later graduated.
Church encouraged the audience to not only embrace their own failures, but to learn from the failures of others. “I’ve learned as much from my negative role models as I did from my positive ones,” he said. “They had trouble, and you’re trying to learn from their trouble without personally experiencing it.”
The success of FAIL!
A survey of the first two FAIL! conferences showed a satisfaction rate above 90 percent. “We were able to start a community,” says Francesco Benedetti, one of the FAIL! organizers and a postdoc in chemical engineering at MIT. “People started conversations about failure and made friends because of the experiences they had in common.”
In February, FAIL! was awarded first prize in the “Live” category of the BetterMIT Innovation Challenge for successfully “expanding study spaces and student life.” The challenge was organized by the Undergraduate Association Committee on Innovation and Technology.
This spring, FAIL! organizers piloted a workshop series on the topic of failure to complement their conferences. Ten graduate students met on a monthly basis with a FAIL! faculty presenter to discuss times they had failed and what they had learned from their experiences.
“These workshops help bridge the gap between inspiring speakers and students who would like to change their relationship with failure,” says Kanika Gakhar, a first-year graduate student and lead organizer of the FAIL! workshop. “By sharing personal experiences and coping strategies, students have an opportunity to feel accepted and learn from each other.”
The FAIL! initiative is also expanding beyond MIT. In March, a FAIL! Conference was held at the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad, India and drew a crowd of 350 people.
When confronted with failure, it can be hard to know how to start again. Among the FAIL! Conference speakers, and those who organized the series, there was no one path forward. The only thing that was true for all of them was that they did start again.
FAIL! organizer Chengzhao Zhang, who is pursuing a PhD in mathematics at MIT, reflects: “I’ve failed at so many things; I don’t know where to begin. When I was an undergrad, I scored 35/120 on a partial differential equations midterm. I had never scored so low on a test. But afterwards, I still stuck with the field because of the beauty of math and its ability to model physical and engineering phenomena. Now I am able to do PhD-level research at one of the best institutes in the world.”
“It’s scary to fail,” Zhang acknowledges. “You’ll doubt your ability, your worthiness, and your intelligence in confronting it. But failure is no reason to stop trying. Reflect upon the mistakes you made and learn a lesson from them.”
“FAIL! is about being human,” adds Benedetti. “We all need inspiring and realistic role models. By sharing the challenges and vulnerabilities that many people try to hide, our brave speakers are helping to create an environment where students feel comfortable being themselves and expressing their creativity. We believe that FAIL! is providing a model of thoughtfulness and humility, which will inspire attendees to be better leaders.”
Other prominent speakers at the MIT FAIL! Conferences include: Allan Adams, physicist and principal investigator of the Future Ocean Lab at MIT; Amanda Bosh, astronomer and planetary scientist at MIT; Amy Edmonson, professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School; Arthur Bahr, associate professor of literature at MIT; Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT; Mariana Castells, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School; Mira Wilczek, president and CEO of Cogo Labs and a senior partner at Link Ventures; Muriel Medard, professor of electrical engineering at MIT; Nuno Loureiro, associate professor of physics at MIT; and Regina Bateson, assistant professor of political science at MIT. Kirsty Bennett, manager of MITell, an on-campus storytelling initiative, hosted the conferences and John Werner, curator of TEDxBeaconStreet, moderated the Q&A session at the fall 2018 conference.
The next FAIL! Conference will take place in fall 2019.