Why Breaking the Stigma of Failure Could Be Our Greatest Asset

May 31, 2024
Broken Lightbulb

This is the first article in our 3-part blog series, The Hidden Superpowers of Failure,  featuring HDO Faculty Member, Becca North.

When Grammy Award-winning musician Ed Sheeran was a guest on The Howard Stern Show on SiriusXM Radio in May of 2023, Howard Stern asked him how he became the singer he is today, adding, “That’s something you’re born with, right?” Sheeran said, “Uh, no,” and he went on to share that he was not a good singer in the few years before his first hit album. They listened on air to a song Sheeran recorded in that time, and Stern seemed to agree with Sheeran’s assessment. Stern wondered what changed over the course of those years: “Was it from going out and performing that you learned…?”

Sheeran replied: “Yeah, failing—time and time after again…. You learn everything from the failures, and this is the thing that annoys me about the state that the world is in at the moment is no one talks about failure anymore; it’s like shame, like failure is shame. And it’s like, oh, let’s just bury that and not talk about it. No one goes, oh, what did we learn from this? Whereas with success, everyone shouts about it.”

Taking a cue from Ed Sheeran, let’s talk about failure—and explore some of its benefits through the lens of work life.

Connecting Failure, Originality, Innovation, and Happiness at Work

To provide context, I am a researcher in psychology and an author, in addition to being a teacher in the Human Dimensions of Organizations (HDO) program and at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT Austin. My work is in the area of happiness and well-being—human flourishing, more generally. A big question in my research is: How can negative experiences foster positive psychological change?

I wrote a book that draws on science and stories to investigate the relationship between failure and success and challenge the prevailing view of failure. More broadly, the book, Your Hidden Superpowers: How the Whole Truth of Failure Can Change Our Lives, illuminates how our view of failure affects the way we live, lead, decide, imagine, innovate, connect, and dare.

This blog series integrates parts of the book and builds on the book by considering some of the ideas through the lens of work. Through three blog posts, we’ll explore benefits of failure, discuss originality in relation to failure and consider how failure and originality can fuel innovation and happiness.

But first, let’s consider a big barrier to extracting value from our failures. The stigma.

Acknowledging Failure: The Big Barrier and Benefit

Ed Sheeran highlighted the problem. There is a stigma around failure, and the stigma leads us to hide failures when they happen. The shame of failing makes us want to bury them.

Dr. Brené Brown has illuminated through her remarkable research that shame leads to silence. The shame of failing leads us to be silent about it. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz called failure “the great American taboo.” We don’t want to talk about it. We hide failures from others, but often we hide them from ourselves too, rationalizing our way out of acknowledging them or banishing them into the dusty corners of our minds.

These strategies are understandable. Given the prevailing view that failure is bad, they make sense. But they have a major cost: they block us from extracting the benefits of failure.

Acknowledging our failures—first to ourselves and then by talking about them with people whom we trust—positions us to access the benefits. It is a vitally important first step to making use of our failures. The big benefit of acknowledging failure is that it enables us to extract the value of failure.  

Getting Real About the Dark Side of Failure

As we consider rethinking our view of failure, it is important to acknowledge that failure has a dark side. Failures are painful: embarrassing and often humiliating. The pain of failure, what I call failure’s dark side, is part of the truth of failure. There is a chapter in my book called “Failure Sucks.” Because it does. The chapter title is a quotation of a cofounder of PayPal in describing the pain of failures he experienced before founding the online payment service. When I interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson about the role of failure in Abraham Lincoln’s success, the word McPherson used most frequently to discuss how Lincoln felt after his most painful failure was “hurt.”

Science and stories show that pain after failure is universal. Researchers have investigated whether people with high self-esteem would be immune to pain after a failure, like a rejection. Nope. Others have investigated whether people who report not caring what others think about them would be immune to pain after rejection. No, they feel pain too. Emotional pain after failure can be viewed in our bodies, including the activity of our brains, hormones, and hearts.

Whereas the dark side of failure is part of the story, it is only a part. As we will explore, failure offers rich benefits. It has a powerful light side. Though failures offer tremendous value, claiming that value is a choice.

Leveraging Losses: An Unexpected Source of Value at Work

You may be engaged in work that is gratifying and challenging in meaningful ways. Or, you may be in the group of about half of U.S. workers, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center survey, that is neither extremely satisfied nor very satisfied with their work. If you are in the latter category, you may have thought to yourself: I don’t even know what I really want to do—what kind of work I would find fulfilling. Even if you are in the former group, you may have wondered: How can I find a way to be more creative and innovative in my work?

In both cases, an answer is to leverage your failures. In other words, harvest your losses, mine your scrap heap—and ultimately, extract the full value of your failures.

Ed Sheeran is not the only phenomenal musician to talk recently about the value of failure. Taylor Swift, when she received the Innovator Award at the 2023 iHeartRadio Music Awards, encouraged people in her acceptance speech to give themselves “permission to fail.”

“I do want to say that the thing with these exciting nights and moments and specifically this award that I am so lucky to have gotten is that you know they’re shining a light on the choices I made that worked out, right? – the ones that turned out to be good ideas. But I really, really want everyone to know, especially young people, that the hundreds or thousands of dumb ideas that I’ve had are what led me to my good ideas. You have to give yourself permission to fail. (Applause) I try as hard as I can not to fail cuz it’s embarrassing, but I do give myself permission to, and you should too.”

By talking about their failures, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift are helping to break the stigma. They are boldly flying in the face of “the great American taboo.” Their words are like an antidote to the stigma of failure and its consequences.

Here’s the thing: acknowledging failure positions us to access the benefits, but the stigma around failure makes acknowledging it hard. Breaking the stigma of failure would position us to leverage the benefits by making it easier for all of us to acknowledge our failures. When one person acknowledges a failure, it not only enables that individual to extract value from the failure, it is a step toward breaking the stigma.

Consider another possible stigma-breaker. The view that failure is bad—the prevailing view of failure—fuels the stigma. But what if that view is not true?

And what benefits might failure actually offer?

We’ll explore these questions next week and start by getting clear about the definition of failure—and originality.

In the meantime, here are a few questions to consider…

What was a recent failure you experienced at work?

What emotions came up for you and how did you respond to the failure?

Is there space for talking openly about failures, like mistakes and setbacks, at your organization?

Becca North Head Shot

Dr. North is a researcher and author in the field of psychology, and her research is in the area of happiness and well-being—human flourishing, more broadly. A big question in her research is: How can negative experiences foster positive psychological change? She wrote a book that integrates science and stories to investigate the relationship between failure and success and challenge the prevailing view of failure. The book, Your Hidden Superpowers: How the Whole Truth of Failure Can Change Our Lives, illuminates how the way we view failure affects how we live, lead, decide, innovate, connect, and dare.

Her interdisciplinary background, including expertise in psychology, public policy, and history, informs her approach to research and teaching. She also taught for three years in Compton, California, as a corps member of Teach For America. Currently, she teaches at Huston-Tillotson University, an HBCU in Austin, in addition to teaching at the University of Texas, and is pursuing an innovative, multi-disciplinary research project that aims to contribute to the healing of our divided nation by starting in Texas.