FAILURE: The “Other ‘F’ Word” – Success & Innovation’s Sibling?

Princeton students are quite appropriately focused, if not actually fixated, on success – in the classroom, on the field and for their emerging careers. But success has a much less well-understood sibling, which is often a precursor and even prerequisite for that success, whether in business, science, athletics or the arts. Failure.

Although we may treat failure as a regrettable event, it has the potential to become a strategic resource, invaluable in its ability to show us - sometimes painfully and usually uncomfortably - what we don’t yet know but need to in order to succeed in our chosen objective.

Failure’s like gravity – a subtle, pervasive but invaluable fact of life. The Wright Brothers used it to fly; the ancient Romans to deliver fresh water to 1.5 million residents; and Nobel prizewinners to make profound discoveries in their labs – not to mention entrepreneurs, artists, authors, architects and athletes who’ve used the lessons of failure to achieve impressive success. In short, as much as we might prefer to deny or defy it, failure will be a likely companion in much of what we do, and our attitudes and skill in dealing with it can shape our own trajectory of accomplishment.

This seminar will offer incoming freshmen a unique interdisciplinary window into this “other ‘f’ wor[l]d” of failure, with an opportunity to see firsthand how valuable it can be in the pursuit of success. In addition to utilizing my own recent book on this topic (The Other ‘F’ Word: How Leaders, Teams and Entrepreneurs Put Failure To Work, John Wiley & Sons, 2015), we will explore additional readings from history, technology, behavioral economics, psychology and even philosophy to anchor our class [see sample readings list]. Whether by Skype-style video or in person, we will also hear from prominent experts and professionals – from academia, entrepreneurship, politics and the arts – who will share candidly their own failure-centric insights with their future counterparts.

This seminar is not for the faint-hearted. We’ll explore some discomforting territory, but it should be a fascinating odyssey through unfamiliar and very familiar terrain. Curiosity, creativity, a spirit of open-minded inquiry and perhaps a dose of humility and humor will be the prerequisites for admission. In the event the seminar is oversubscribed, I would invite interested students to submit a short essay outlining their reasons for wanting to join our class.