To be successful, let failure be your muse

At the Humanitarian Innovation Jam 2015 at Georgetown University, entrepreneurs shared their personal failures. It was inspiring to hear them speak about their mistakes with a positive approach.

I never thought of failure as a tool for development. It was fascinating to me that leaders could recognize their mistakes, without a constant fear of being judged. During this panel, breakdowns were seen as a part of the natural cycle of any project, and participants felt comfortable about it.


The lessons I learned from the conference were so inspiring that I decided to write a blog post about it. In this text, I will share the three most important lessons I took out of the event.

We fail. It happens. Let’s accept it

Since we were born, people have encouraged us to not make mistakes. Failure is never a celebrated option. Get the best grades. Be outgoing. Win. Excel. Think hard. Those successes excite us, and failure seems frightening.

Russel Greiff from New Markets Venture Partners says it would be different if we recognized failure as an essential part of success. “Failure has become a hot topic in the entrepreneurial sector. It is constantly evolving,” he mentions. By taking the negative side of the concept, the frustration we feel when making mistakes will disappear – and we will be able to learn from our past individual and collective actions.

Turning failure into knowledge

People spoke about one mistake they had made in the event. It was the first time I thought of my failures and shared them with a positive lens. It made such a difference that my partner said: “Congratulations for your failure! You learned so much!”

Feeling comfortable by recognizing mistakes is the key to a successful project. Katherine Arnold from the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves says that sharing the complete picture, failures and successes, helps stakeholders. The example she mentioned at the conference was when she only used to share the most successful cook stoves stories to donors. She used to think of failure as a weakness. But once she decided to mention examples were the cook stoves did not have the impact her organization expected, stakeholders valued her sincerity and were able to come with ideas on how to make the project more effective. They also felt like they were involved in the learning process.

Learn how to fail intelligently

Today’s speakers shared the challenges they went through in order to take the negative stigma out of our personal conceptions of failure. The scary part of failure is not knowing how people will react when you do not do things right. How do you feel when things do not happen as planned? Most people do not like uncertainty. For Michelle Risinger from PACT Innovations, to overcome the tension, we need to change our personal approach. Failure should be seen as an intellectual success and we should learn how to deconstruct each mistake we make.

Russel Greiff’s company used to give awards to the biggest failure. He wanted to encourage his employees to talk about their mistakes. “The point was that people did not feel embarrassed. We wanted them to show their mistakes and to take personal risks. It was very productive in the long term”.
My final take is that today’s biggest challenge is creating a global culture where we feel good about failure. Understanding it is an elemental part of success. For us students, it is not about feeling miserable if we do not get straight A’s, it is about accepting we got a C and learning how we can improve our strategies to achieve our ultimate goals.


I wrote this post for the Georgetown’s Social Innovation Hub: The Beeck Center on January 15, 2015. To read the original post, click here.

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