“Failure is nothing to be ashamed of”
Learning from our mistakes and continuing to grow is essential, writes AOP chief executive, Adam Sampson
13 October 2023
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It has taken a few decades for Samuel Beckett’s obscure aphorism (has anybody actually read Worstward Ho?) to become the stuff of t-shirt slogans, but for all its clichéd status, it expresses a real truth. We readily celebrate success, but give little time for its inevitable bedfellow, failure.
However, as this edition of OT argues, failure is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide, but something, if not to celebrate, at least to learn from. OT is not alone in exploring this topic: last year, the journal Nature underlined its belief that negative experimental results were just as important as positive ones by publishing a collection of examples. This included the findings that there is no evidence that the shift from reading books to usage of digital media has any harmful impact on people’s wellbeing, and that the presence of pictures of eyes does not reduce dogs’ propensity to steal food.
As a non-scientist, I have my own take on the value of failure. Like many others, my career has been a litany of failure, interspersed with the occasional example of success (usually due to other people’s efforts, I hasten to add). If the mistakes have become slightly rarer in recent years – and I hope that is the case – it is because I have gradually learned how to avoid my more egregious errors, if only by surrounding myself with people who balance my worst excesses.
Science advances by trial and error, with failures vastly outnumbering successes
Not hiding from them, but staring my failures in the eye to see what I can learn from them is one of the most useful skills I have acquired. Yes, it is the second half of Beckett’s motto that, for me, matters the most. It is the willingness, in the face of past failures, to take risks and to try again that is most difficult. And that is not just a skill that is difficult for an individual to acquire; it is also something that many organisations struggle to tolerate.
One of the features of government over the past few decades has been the growing intolerance exhibited to those who have failed (or, worse, attracted negative publicity). Seeing their colleagues publicly cut apart, it is little wonder that so many civil servants keep their heads down and do as little as possible to attract attention. Action risks failure and failure leads to punishment; therefore, take no action.
It is not to say that all risk is good risk and all failure is honourable failure. Optometry is an evidence-based discipline, and no optometrist is entitled to take cavalier risks with people’s sight. But, like my career, science advances by trial and error, with failures vastly outnumbering successes. That is the reality which this edition of OT seeks to explore.