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“Facing the Fear of Failure”: Practicing What You Teach - Emily Pohl

“Facing the Fear of Failure”: Practicing What You Teach - Emily Pohl

I’ve had my share of failures:bad tests, cringe-worthy interviews, and failing to overcome hurdles (literally, as I plummeted to the ground face-first not once, but twice in my first hurdle race). While many focus on the topic of avoiding or learning from “failure,” what is often overlooked is the paralyzing  effects of the fear of failure itself.

Learning to translate failures to success is critical but to begin, one must first overcome the barrier of fear by daring to fail.When my group and I were asked to “co-create” and teach a class on a “design-thinking” topic, we looked to the problem-solving process for inspiration and realized that the common thread that united all challenges was this fear to failure. Using this concept, our presentation took shape around two key questions:

1.     Why and how should one dare to fail?

2.     How can one evolve from failure towards success?

We looked at failure through a new lens: viewing the doubt and anxiety attached to the “fear of failure” as powerful motivators rather than inhibitions. After reframing failure as a foundation for change and preface for success, we encouraged our classmates to approach failure unconventionally—looking at it not as an outcome, but as skill to be practiced and developed.

We challenged our classmates to test this method and asked them to attempt to complete a set of 10 “rejection therapy” cards, each detailing a small task or action that essentially setting them up to “practice failure”:

  1. Ask your roommate to pick out your outfit for a day

  2. Ask the Starbucks barista to let you make a drink  

  3. Ask NDSP, the campus police force, for a ride to class

  4. Ask someone on a lunch date or friendship date

  5. Ask 5 strangers to tie your shoes

  6. Ask (anybody) to give you a tour of The Huddle (the small campus grocery store)

  7. Go to a club meeting that you’ve never been to before-challenge yourself to participate (even if you have no idea what’s going on)

  8. Ask to audit a class with a topic you’re interested in or know nothing about

  9. Ask to stay for free at the Morris Inn

  10. Try to arrange a meeting with the University President—Fr. John Jenkins, CSC

Co-teaching on a topic as salient as failure naturally led to an intriguing and interactive class discussion in which I saw my own topic from new angles. However, the challenge remained: could I practice what I preached?—Could I constrain my fear of failure through the process of actively failing and could I draw insights from this process?  

Challenge #1: To start my journey into failure, I chose the task that I knew would spark an eager and ruthless response—ask your roommate to pick out your outfit for a day. The result was as follows:

While my outfit did prompt some questioning and concerned stares, the “failure” of my pink dinosaur onesie to fit within social norms had the unexpected benefit of instigating conversations around the fear of failure. As my outfit prompted many “why’s” throughout the day, I was given a platform to expand on the discussion that had started in my co-taught class, gauging my peers’ opinions on the validity of “practicing failure” in an environment where there is little margin for error.

Challenge #2: Daring to fail requires vulnerability—a feeling I experienced first-hand as a long-line of customers tuned in as I, still dressed in my pink onesie, asked the Starbucks barista if I could “make my own drink.” As expected, my request prompted a series of negotiations where I proceeded to acknowledge the abnormality of my question and attempted to appease the barista’s apprehensions by offering to make the simplest drink possible. I then asked to talk to the manager who ultimately shot down my request.

My immediate reaction was the all-too-familiar sinking feeling—the one you get when you open a rejection email or realize you’ve slept through your alarm. However, as I reflected on the absurdity of my request, the sinking feeling was replaced with a sense of amusement as I began to brainstorm what I could’ve tried or accounted for in order to turn the “no” into a “yes.” Perhaps I could’ve succeeded if I’d visited Starbucks right before they closed or maybe I could’ve painted a clearer picture of the simplicity of my request by naming a specific easy-to-make drink like an “ice water.” I also began to notice that requesting a service from a stranger is much harder to swing than from a friend and realized that if I re-designed the process of trying to make my own drink such as trying to do so at a local coffee shop, I potentially could have a greater impact. Even though I approached the challenge with the intention of avoiding failure, I could not have drawn the same insights without poignantly experiencing the failure myself.

Challenge #3: After developing some inertia from the Starbucks challenge, I resolved to tackle another intimidating task—asking NDSP for a ride to class. However, my approach was something I should have learned not to do by now: I tried to take the path of least resistance. I decided to go with a simple backstory, that I had walked on my ankle weird, and a simple request, a ride to the University health center. Little did I know that 1. The health center was closed and 2. Apparently NDSP must send a whole medical team when someone reports an injury. After practicing my fake limp for an embarrassingly long amount of time and rehearsing the phone call, everything was derailed when the NDSP officer announced a medical team would come assist me shortly and I had to quite awkwardly apologize as I was unfortunately locked into my story.

Despite the uncomfortable encounter, I gained a valuable takeaway: you can’t plan for everything and telling the truth from the start is the only way to position yourself to be able to adjust to setbacks or rejections. I also realized that underneath my retreat to the “path of least resistance” was ironically the fear of failure I was working to overcome. The fear of failure not only manifests itself through inaction but can inadvertently influence people to take trivial or adverse actions that fail to attack the root of problems. Subconsciously, my desire to “complete” the task had overshadowed the underlying intention of “practicing failure” well by negotiating my way to a success.

Challenge #4: After surviving the rigor of the first few challenges, I decided to ramp up the stakes of my next one—asking someone on a friendship date. First, I challenged myself to ask a friend I knew on a surface level but wanted to get to know further. Second, I designed and sent my friend, Frankie, a formal “Evite” in an effort to deviate as far as I could from the norm of lunch invitations.


Luckily, Frankie happily obliged and the “weirdness” of my Evite naturally directed our lunch conversation towards the culture around failure and how we, as students, could encourage “practicing failure” or daring to fail outside of the high-stakes context of tests or responsibilities.

We realized that on top of practicing this vulnerability of failure, doing so in a collaborative manner that engages the community around us will help shape a culture of generative failure—where people feel free to voice their fears but simultaneously are challenged to use these fears of failure in a constructive way that informs the process of how one reaches a goal. In attempts to create a sustainable method of practicing failure, I passed my “rejection therapy” card along to Frankie and challenged him to complete the task and keep the conversation going.

Taking a step back to reflect on my trial run of “rejection therapy” as a whole, I realized I could group the challenges into two categories. The first were more micro-level challenges that required me to request something of an independent individual—my roommate or classmate. The second were macro-level challenges that pushed me to request something of an unknown individual, tied to a larger organization—a Starbucks barista and NDSP officer.

While I found myself more afraid of failure during the macro-level challenges, the practice of failing actually led me to draw more insights than when I “succeeded.” The act of failing can be discouraging, but when you openly address the possibility of failure and transcend this fear through action, it suddenly becomes an exciting starting point; failure triggers unexpected insights and can even introduce a new angle from which to view the problem.

Overall, practicing failure was a generative and arguably contagious process. Each challenge I undertook sparked discussions which translated into new ideas which informed the process of how I approached the next challenge. This idea of continual growth connects back to the nature of the fluid, interpersonal, and ongoing learning process of “co-teaching.” The insights I drew from practicing failure may be radically different than someone else who completes a parallel task. My hope is that the process of learning from failure itself will inspire others to do the same—extracting their own insights from their journey.


“Failing Forward” and Other Cliches to Avoid When Discussing Failure - Carly Kreber

“Failing Forward” and Other Cliches to Avoid When Discussing Failure - Carly Kreber

How does one teach failure in a way that is not, well, simply another version of success?
This is the challenge our group  faced  as we embarked on what was, for most of us, our first foray into a formalized teaching role. As students of the International Development and Design Thinking course, groups of two or three were tasked with designing and facilitating a course related to some aspect of design thinking. 

The choice of topic came easily. Within the process of design thinking there are many aspects that circle around the idea of failure without ever addressing its role in the design thinking process head on. A discussion of growth mindsets might lead one to conclude that all we really need to know about failure is how to bounce back from it. 

The concept of prototyping might beg the question of what, if anything, is truly a failure if you simply consider it a prototype of the next, more successful iteration. These are certainly optimistic ways to think about failure, but we wondered if they were helpful in practice.
While the what of our teaching assignment came pretty quickly, the how proved more difficult. 

Discussing failure in a way that doesn’t come off as trite or impractically idealistic is a challenge. A TED talk by entrepreneur Jagi Jill provided the shape of the central message of  our lesson. Jill discusses the evolution of the entrepreneurial and design thinking-centered approaches towards failure- from “fail fast” to “fail better” and, most recently,  “fail forward, ” acknowledging that “we don’t wake up thinking that we’re going to embrace or strive for failure.”[1]
Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Gift of Doubt,” provided an excellent introduction to the fear of failure that has long been considered a hindrance to creativity. This idea of doubt as a creative motivator served as the basis for our class discussion. Judging by the responses to the reflection questions concerning the student’s own views and insights gained from Gladwell’s essay, was a concept that our classmates found both fresh and  pertinent to the study of international development and our Development Advisory Teams (DATs), semester-long development projects that serves as a central focus of the course.  

We had talked about the idea of prototyping failure relatively early in our class design process> The central goal of the activity, to get the DAT teams to use the fear of failure to design their projects in a way that would deliver a more successful and robust solution to the client, flowed naturally from a discussion on Gladwell’s essay and the Hiding Hand principle posisted by its subject, Albert Hirschman, the idea that initial ignorance about the scope of a problem will force one to to find a creative solution rather than abandon a project once it is already underway. 

By encouraging teammates to “prototype failure” through the facilitation of a frank discussion among DAT team members concerning their biggest concerns or doubts surrounding the project, and then asking them to use these insights to work as a team to find way to mitigate the likelihood of such events,  team members were provided  a platform to be frank about their own doubts about the DAT projects and the directions they’re moving in without assigning blame to  one another. This is also a simple yet effective activity that can be translated to any number of projects that a classmate undertakes in the future. 

In an attempt to teach failure in a way that stuck, our group connectedto a guiding principle of design thinking: empathy. As a student, future employee, and DAT member, simply being lectured to about all the ways in which I can embrace failure is unhelpful when failure might mean, for example, standing in front of a client and realizing that you spent a semester on a deliverable that will be promptly forgotten. Instead, we focused on bringing about a substantive conversation around the use of failure and doubt as a catalyst, rather than a barrier, for creativity, and aimed to offer practical insights from successful people who have failed a lot. 

I’m particularly happy that we were able to teach this class at a time when such fears concerning our DAT projects are really coming to a head, and hope that our work in designing this class is reflected in the ways that the DAT teams address their anxieties surrounding this final race towards the finish. For my team particularly, working on the expansion of Notre Dame’s presence in India, this activity allowed us to voice concerns with a particular direction in which the project was heading without casting the work of any one team member in a negative light. Within our failure brainstorming process, we were also able to identify and develop plans to mitigate the risk certain negative outcomes that we had not incorporated into our plans previously. 

The Gift of Failure - Irla Atanda

The Gift of Failure - Irla Atanda

Failure. Nobody wants to talk about it, but I had to.

Before applying to Steve Reifenberg’s International Development and Design Thinking course, I had no idea what to expect. In fact, I was scared of being rejected from this class. Admittedly, I was scared of failing before even getting the opportunity to fail. Still, I knew that I wanted to apply because the risk of rejection was outweighed by the intriguing opportunity for the collaborative learning that the class offered.

One of the collaborative learning opportunities that I was assigned to this semester was to prepare and teach a class on failure with two other students. I had a difficult time with this assignment. I constantly found myself frustrated throughout the preparation process. I didn’t really understand why I found myself being overcome by these emotions, but looking back now, I realized that I was being crippled by the fear of failure:
Scared that the readings we picked for the class discussion would not resonate with our classmates and that the class discussion would not be fulfilling.
Scared that our presentation would not flow smoothly and would not be timely.
Scared that people would be hesitant in completing the assignment we assigned them: completing a failure resume- a resume that consists of academic failures, personal failures, relationship failures, etc. Nobody wants to write out their failures so I figured we would receive some negative reactions towards this assignment. 
Scared that we would not be able to execute our planned activity well: having each Development Advisory Teams (DAT) proptype or think of ways that their team could fail in achieving their end goals.  

I had to address these thoughts and fears before being able to teach our class. By acknowledging these fears, I was set free from them. I came to a peaceful state of knowing that whatever happens will happen and that these outcomes are great learning opportunities.

Furthermore, another fear that I was able to address with my DAT group during our class discussion was the fear of failing in our DAT project. My DAT team has been tasked with the opportunity to collaborate with Notre Dame International in establishing and expanding Notre Dame’s presence in India as a part of the Asia Initiatives. For this project, we decided to focus on mapping the range of faculty, staff, students, and alumni engagements in India (we called this “relationship mapping”) and exploring the different possibilities in creating a more robust set of partnerships in India (we called this “vision mapping”). This task sometimes feels so big and daunting that often I feel as if my team (myself included) is stuck. Stuck in the fact that we’re not administrators making Notre Dame’s final decision. Stuck in the fear that our relationship and vision mappings won’t be useful for our clients. Stuck in the fact that we don’t feel a sense of urgency in meeting with faculty involved in India or in creating our final deliverable. 

These feelings of failure and hesitation came to light when we were tasked with prototyping failure, or envisioning the ways our final presentation could go wrong, in our DAT. We discussed how we fear the deliverables we present will look great, but will not be sustainable: 

  • For the relationship mapping, we created a webpage mock-up that highlights faculty, students, programs, etc. Although we believed that this idea could be useful in bringing to light Notre Dame’s connections in India, we worried that the website manager for NDI would not be able to keep the webpage updated. 

  • For the vision mapping, we dreamed big in terms of the programs that we could suggest that students would find interesting, but I think we often got stumped on the question: how big is too big? The fact that we’re not administrators definitely hindered our progress in thinking of these opportunities, but realized that our role as students is just as important. These administrators create programs that serve the students interests and values. 

I am still unclear as to how our deliverable will come together, it was liberating to be able to address these and move forward with the final push.

I am grateful that I took the chance in applying for this class. The valuable lessons that I have learned through teaching the class on failure, participating in the classes led by other co-creators, and hearing from Prof. Reifenberg’s experiences are lessons that I will take when I enter the field of human-centered development. Ana-Dionne Lanier, my mentor for this class, recently told me that everything in life is all about “taking steps towards an end goal.” My end goal is to create human-centered solutions and these solutions are best learned with empathy, but cannot be learned without transcending the fear of failure. This class has provided me with the skills and knowledge to work towards this end goal.