We the Partnership

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: failure

By Parker Schaffel
January 26, 2021

When I interviewed for my position at the Partnership for Public Service, I was asked to describe a time I failed and what I learned from it.  

I answered the question easily because I’ve failed a lot. I mean a lotI failed getting into the U.S. Air Force. I failed the State Department’s and Defense Department’s Arabic language test. I failed at launching my own business. And I failed to become a successful musician.  

Yet failure, while scary and painful, can also be instructive and breed self-awareness. We tend not to talk about failure, but it can provide important benefits in the long run. 

Failure is scary

What if I fail? What will people think of me? Will I be able to recover? The unknown answers to these questions make failure scary. On the contrary, success fosters clarity. If you do a job well and achieve your intended outcome, you gain confidence in your abilities and feel more secure in yourself. 

Failure is painful 

Failure can hurt financially, professionally and emotionally. If you pay money to take a course and you fail, you have to pay to take it again. If you fail at work, you might be terminated. For first responders, military personnel and law enforcement, it could mean that people die. The pain triggered by these failures can be long-lasting. 

Failure is instructive 

Thomas Edison reportedly said, “I didn’t fail, I just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” As this quote suggests, failure can provide you with more knowledge about the way something doesn’t work, freeing you up to experiment with new—and potentially better—ways of doing things. 

Failure breeds self-awareness 

Leadership coaches preach that failure is the best way to grow because it requires you to take a deep look at yourself and your actions. Through this, you gain self-awareness, reduce your blind spots, learn new methods and see things from different perspectives. Success doesn’t always lead to this level of introspection. 

Going forward, fail and fail often! 

So, let’s be real. Failure happens to all of us. While we never want to fail, we inevitably will. And failure is hard. It’s really hard. But it’s also beneficial. That’s why it’s important.  

“Ingenuity is not a matter of superior intelligence but of character,” writes Atul Gawande, a public health expert. “It demands more than anything a willingness to recognize failure, to not paper over the cracks, and to change.” 

Let us take Gawande’s words and learn to fail. 

Visit the Partnership’s Public Service Leadership Model for more professional development insights.


Parker Schaffel