What are the proven keys to success? Ask any startup guru, creative genius, life coach, or CEO, and you’re bound to hear a hundred different answers: self-confidence, self-discipline, passion, purpose, family support, opportunity, and so much more besides. Increasingly, it seems, there’s another “secret” to success that all of us should embrace: failure. Spend a little time on the internet searching the words failure and success, and you will likely come across myriad inspirational sermons, graduation speeches, and TED Talks on the virtues of failure. Failure, we are told, is the greatest teacher of all. This sentiment is so ubiquitous online and in self-help books that it’s almost unassailable. But there’s one creative genius who is unconvinced.
Paula Wallace, president and founder of SCAD, one of the largest arts universities in the world, with locations in the U.S. and Europe and more than 14,000 students from 100+ countries (and an astonishing 99% employment rate for recent graduates), said that failure is for the birds. She calls it “failure-ism.”
She does seem to have some authority when it comes to success. Her bona fides speak for themselves. As SCAD president for some 20 years, she has more than doubled enrollment and the number of degree programs. She has quadrupled the university’s locations from one campus in Savannah, Georgia, to locations in Atlanta and online, as well as a permanent study abroad location in Lacoste, France. She has conceived of some of the most important creative industry events in the U.S., including the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, SCAD aTVfest, SCAD AnimationFest, and SCAD deFINE ART, and she has led the adaptive rehabilitation of more than 100 historic buildings to serve as SCAD classrooms and studios. She’s also an author of multiple books and has received some of the highest honors bestowed by the American Institute of Architects and the interior design industry. She’s accomplished much in her career and said neither she nor anyone else should waste time glorifying failure.
“I read a study recently showing that entrepreneurs who previously failed were no more likely than novices to launch a successful venture,” Wallace said. “So we have science to back us up now!”
What’s the appeal of failure? According to Wallace: “It can be quite thrilling to hear the most accomplished persons in our society (say, Steve Jobs) share their heartbreaking stories of professional disaster.” Stories about failure make us feel a little better about our own letdowns, she said. But failure-ism doesn’t do much more than that.
“The Centre for European Economic Research, for example, has found that entrepreneurs who previously failed were no more likely than novices to launch a successful venture,” Wallace said, “echoing another study that found those who had failed before were less likely to succeed than complete neophytes.”
The fundamental challenge, so said Wallace, is to banish the “F” word from your vocabulary. “Just get rid of it. If you think failure is a good teacher, then in some ways, you’re going to seek it out actively, unconsciously. You’ll almost want to fail, just so you ‘learn’ something. But that’s no key to success. You don’t start cooking a meal in hopes it will taste bad. You want everything you eat to be delicious, don’t you?”
When she was a teacher in the public schools of Atlanta, Georgia, her hometown, Wallace said that failure-ism was just recently en vogue. “This was in the seventies, when ‘do-your-own-thing’ freeform experimentation was all the rage in education. Rules went out the window.” In English class, she said, close study of grammar and composition was replaced by an emphasis on stream-of-consciousness writing. In art, chance and happenstance ruled the day. “The word try was tres chic, as though trying were enough,” she said. “Failure became cool.”
In her own classrooms, she began implementing a different approach: Instead of celebrating failure, Wallace and her students struck the very word from their classroom vocabulary. “Along with can’t, won’t, n’er, zilch, and nunca. Words are powerful things, and our focus was wholly on the positive.”
To fully embody this philosophy, on the first day of every school year, Wallace said she would pull out her gradebook and tell all her young students that everyone in the class has an A+. “Their eyes lit up when I did this. Some of these bright young souls had never had an A before in all their lives,” she said. “But now, according to their teacher, they all had perfect grades! For many students, this was their first taste of success.”
Wallace said that students who feel good tend to do well. Students who succeed learn to chase that good feeling.
At the heart of failure-ism, Wallace said, is a romantic and wholly unsubstantiated belief in the value of randomness. “What so many motivational speakers seem to be saying is that if we just open ourselves to the possibility of failure, then something positive will happen, almost by a kind of magic. There’s another educational term for unhinged freedom and playfulness; it’s called ‘recess’!”
Play is important, of course, said Wallace. Play and freedom and experimentation and improvisation all have their place in life and work, to some degree. “But, in the classroom and the boardroom, most enterprises benefit from clearly defined expectations and crisp benchmarks.”
She said that, as an elementary school teacher, she didn’t merely ask her students to experiment with or try writing a poem. “What I would do is this: I’d write a haiku on the board, or a sonnet, even, and explain the rules of that form. Then we’d discuss all the actual creative steps from inspiration to idea to writing. There’s always room for the magic of creativity, but that magic requires some boundaries to manifest.”
Those boundaries, for example, might include teaching and demonstrating ideation, drafting, and revision in front of the class. “I’d work through protocols together before each aspiring poet launched into verse and voice. Soon, my students saw that success was achievable, and they quickly formed a taste for triumph.”
Much of Wallace’s thinking about success vs. failure is rooted in her undergraduate and graduate coursework studying psychology and motivation. “I loved learning about B.F. Skinner, especially. Positive reinforcement is the most effective way to get any team or individual focused on success.” Success, Wallace said, engenders pride, while failure prompts doubt.
In our conversation, Wallace was also quick to cite more recent studies, including one by management researcher Bradley Staats, demonstrating that individuals learn more from their own success than from their own failure. “Success becomes a habit,” Wallace said.
“There’s a great article in Music Educators Journal,” Wallace said. “It’s a story about how one middle school transformed its music program by creating a system that rewards students, largely through public recognition, at each step of their musical development.” The researcher explains that students tend to exceed expectations when they have “an incentive program that provides constant positive reinforcement as well as a clearly charted path to success.”
“This is the same principle at play in my elementary school classrooms and here at SCAD. Look at all those beautiful words: Incentive. Constant. Positive. Reinforcement. Charted. Path. Success. Be still my heart!”
Success, Wallace said, must be intentional, never accidental. Failure might make for a good story some years from now, but according to Paula Wallace SCAD, success is a far more effective teacher.