Entrepreneurial mindset in youth development – Part 1: Failure, 4-H and experiential learning

Failure is a necessary stepping stone to achieving success and an important part of experiential learning.

Some of the best successes are a result of failure. The product world has many examples of success derived from failure. The Formula 409 name is actually a tribute to the tenacity of the two young Detroit scientists who created this grease-cutting, dirt-destroying, bacteria cutting cleaner. It was batch 409 that was finally the successfully combination of ingredients that gave this product its ability.

Failure is often overlooked or even viewed in a negative light, even though it represents a significant outcome of the learning process. Research in the entrepreneurship domain has recognized that failures can be an important source for the development of skills and knowledge. In “Learning Through Failure: The Strategy of Small Losses,” S.B. Sitkin argues that failure is an essential prerequisite for learning since it provides the opportunity to pinpoint why a failure has occurred.

A positive attitude towards failure can enhance the willingness to learn from a failed situation. It can provide insight and result in a change of mindsets so that mistakes are not repeated. Reflection on failure can often foster a different approach to solving a problem. It can furthermore be argued that higher failure acceptance stimulates youth to pursue an explorative search for new possibilities where learning through experimentation becomes a central learning technique. In order to learn from a failure, research from both Sitkin and M.D. Cannon and A.C. Edmonson in 2001 suggests it is important to think about why the failure has occurred.

Looking at failure as an opportunity for reflection and consideration often leads to positive outcomes. Research from M.B. Brewer and M. Hewstone in 2003 suggests that attitudes to a very large extent are learned through social and environmental experiences as individuals encounter different kinds of situations throughout their life or work. Participation in 4-H allows youth the opportunity to encounter situations where they may fail and provides a safe place to test new ideas and processes to become successful. For example, the sewing project they made this year may not have been blue ribbon quality. They may not have met their break-even price on the sale of their hog. They may not have hit their “goal score” on the archery range. Their business idea may not have been very sound. For any of these project situations, reflecting on the process, developing new skill sets to overcome obstacles and learning from failure are all important steps as youth “learn by doing.”

 The 4-H project provides a safe environment where youth can work through the experiential learning model assisted by a 4-H volunteer or leader. Whether through the simplified three-step process of do, reflect and apply, or the more complex five-step process of experience, share, process, generalize and apply, youth who utilize the experiential learning model have the opportunity to analyze their failures and make corrections. When looking at failure through an experiential learning framework, individuals may over time change (or reinforce) their attitudes and beliefs about it as they encounter new conditions and new information and apply these to other aspects of their lives. They may even consider developing a new product or business. By mindfully working through this process, they can develop new strategies to be successful in their endeavors just like entrepreneurs and inventors.

This is the first article in a series of Michigan State University Extension articles examining 4-H, failure and the entrepreneurial mindset. To read other articles in this series, see:


  • Brewer, M.B. & M. Hewstone. (2003) Social cognition: Perspectives on Social Psychology, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Cannon, M.D., & A.C. Edmonson. (2001) “Confronting Failure: Antecedents and Consequences of Shared Belief about Failure in Organizational Work Groups.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 22:161-177.
  • Sitkin, S.B. (1992) “Learning Through Failure: The Strategy of Small Losses.” In Research in Organizational Behavior, eds. B.M. Staw, & L.L. Cummings, 231-266. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

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