Failures are as important as successes

Adult mentors can help youth reframe failures as learning experiences.

A hand writing failure and success

In this season of graduations and the school year ending, it is easy to focus on accomplishments and successes as we reflect on the past year as well as a student’s entire school career. However, failure is an important part of our learning process and can be a powerful educational experience. It takes some practice and humility to see failure as a good thing, as so often it is portrayed as a negative experience or something people don’t want to talk about. Teachers, coaches and 4-H leaders can help youth reframe failure and reflect on what they learned.

Think back to a time when you feel like you failed at something. Did you work on a project that didn’t turn out like you hoped? Did you plan an event that didn’t attract enough people? Did you overspend on a budget? Did you run out of food or supplies for a project? Did you say something that offended someone? Did you miss a deadline?

How did you feel immediately after the experience? How did that change over time? Often, the passage of time helps us to see how we could have done something differently to affect a different outcome, but right after the experience our feelings of shame and embarrassment may hinder our ability to learn from it. We can help change the culture of how we talk about failure so that the youth we work with can learn to see failure as part of their normal development.

Here are some common situations youth experience and some tips for how to talk about them in a way that encourages growth.

Sports team doesn’t win a game or tournament. Student doesn’t win a competition or scholarship.

  • Encourage discussion on the entire experience, not just the final result. What were the things that worked well? What did they observe the other team/contestants do well?
  • Extended activity: Good Sports Greeting Cards

Youth misses a deadline for entering a project in the fair.

  • Encourage discussion about what was learned in the project experience. What could help them meet deadlines in the future? Are there other places they could share their project besides at the fair?
  • Extended activity: Juggling with Elephants

Youth work on a community service project that didn’t raise as much money or didn’t engage as many community members as they wanted. Or perhaps they work on something where there were more people than expected and they end up overspending on a budget or didn’t buy enough supplies.

  • Encourage discussion about all the different skills learned through the project. What were the things that worked well? Where could they ask for help or more resources next time?
  • Extended activity: What/So What/Now What?

Avoid shame or blame in these discussions and pay attention to how you express your feedback. Helping youth to see what they can learn in these situations can often be as much about our phrasing and attitude as the actual questions we use. It may help to remind everyone involved about the bigger picture of learning and developing skills to be better in the future.

Learning to see failure as an experience that can teach us as much or more than a success takes practice and patience. Model this in your words and feedback to youth about their experiences, and they will be able to see the value of failure!

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our 2017 Impact Report: “MSU Extension: Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2017, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H Youth Development help to prepare young people for successful futures. As a result of career exploration and workforce preparation activities, thousands of Michigan youth are better equipped to make important decisions about their professional future, ready to contribute to the workforce and able to take fiscal responsibility in their personal lives. For more information or resources on career exploration, workforce preparation, financial education, or entrepreneurship, contact

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