Learning to Fail

Course Summary

Over the past few years, the course “Learning to Fail” has gained notoriety around campus as a fun course with unconventional methods of teaching. Every week our class was tasked with failure challenges in which we were given a mission in which failure was the likely outcome. The challenges would often require us to ask strangers for ridiculous favors, which would leave me feeling quite uncomfortable. From trying to sell a jolly rancher for $20 to trying to sell strangers our autographs, there was no shortage of awkwardness. While most of the tasks seemed downright ridiculous while I was doing them, I was shocked to find how much I had learned and developed through these experiences.


In addition to participating in failure challenges both inside and outside of class, we read popular texts on start up culture focusing on Eric Rees’ lean startup method. In a semester-long project, everyone in the class took the first steps in launching their own venture. For my project, I identified the laundry process at Duke to be ineffective. I proposed an app be built to allow students to be able to remotely view which laundry machines were not in use and to be notified when their laundry is finished. I spent the semester validating my hypothesis about the laundry problem and constructed a concept for the app that could one day be built. I believe this project will greatly help me the next time I try to launch another venture.

Two great books on the power of failure.


You can practice almost anything: From a young age I was taught that practice makes perfect and that I can transform weaknesses into strengths through persistence. However, there are a select few skills in life that people treat as genetic and unteachable. Specifically, creativity and shyness fall into this category. Learning to Fail has taught me that anything can be improved with practice. While it is true that some people are naturally more comfortable talking to new people and can more easily think outside the box, people have a much greater ability to control these “talents” than they realize. Unfortunately, people have the mindset that certain skills are innate and limit themselves by not trying to get better at these skills. People who don’t like talking to strangers will avoid those situations and will never improve. I began the semester uncomfortable asking someone for directions, and I ended the semester asking a group of Duke board members in suits to throw a football with me.


Envisioning the worst: a method I learned to conquer my fears of failure is to envision the worst possible outcome. Often times this outcome really isn’t that bad, and I am not so afraid when I frame situations in this manner. Most of the time when asking strangers for something, the worst reasonable response is to say no. I found that I am often averse to failure rather than the failure itself. People don’t like to fail at anything no matter the significance. By focusing on the actual implications of a failure rather than on failure as a concept, I am able to make more rational judgments. School is a good example of this. People stress a lot over doing well in school without understanding why. Students fear their GPA falling but when asked why this causes them so much stress they don’t understand the root cause. Maybe a person is trying to get into medical school and GPA is important to them, but more often than not people avoid doing badly in school because they have ingrained it in their brain for reasons they no longer remember. By envisioning the worst, I am often not scared of the outcome.


Just ask: as mentioned above, the worst response someone is likely to receive when asking for a favor is “no.” However the potential upside to a person meeting your request often greatly outweighs the possibility of failure. This course has made me a lot more comfortable asking strangers for things that I want. I discovered that people say yes far more often than I would have expected. Additionally, asking for a favor often feels like a much bigger deal than it is to the person you are asking. People often find themselves paralyzed or hesitant to ask simple questions like where a bathroom is at a restaurant. Rather than walking aimlessly around the restaurant until you stumble upon it, simply ask someone where it is. In these situations I like to put myself on the other side of the question. If someone asked me where a bathroom was, it would be no trouble for me to answer, whether I knew where the bathroom was or not. Then I am much more willing to ask.


Pre-mortem: I found a lot of benefit from reading post-mortems of failed companies and learned about the concept of the pre-mortem. In a pre-mortem, a person anticipates some form of failure and they have to explain why they failed. This technique has helped me in many aspects of my life. Before taking a test, giving a presentation, or playing a sport I think about ways I might encounter difficulty and this has helped me better prepare myself.


Try new things: similarly to dealing with a “no”, trying new things offers a very high benefit for a very low cost. People like to stick with what works, and this limits people. A simple example of this is me buying sandwiches from the restaurant Twinnies at Duke. The first time in Twinnies at Duke I ordered a turkey avocado bacon sandwich. I was very happy with my meal and saw no reason to change my order when I was already so satisfied. The turkey avocado bacon was the only thing I ordered before taking this course. Then for one week I decided to get a different sandwich every day. Of the five new sandwiches I bought, I enjoyed four, and the Cuban sandwich became my new favorite sandwich. The cost of this experiment was very minimal. Maybe one sandwich I ordered was slightly worse than my typical order, but I also found a new favorite sandwich. I now have a greater array of sandwiches I am happy to choose from, and I have a new go-to sandwich. Even if I did not enjoy any of the other sandwiches it would be a small price to pay, and I would be more confident with my original order. A cost benefit analysis suggests that people should be trying a lot more new things than they do.