It Takes Courage to Fail

March 27, 2014

Associate Professor of Psychology Heather Macalister presents the second in a series of faculty essays about Mary Baldwin’s 2013–14 theme, Courage. The writings, which appear in The Cupola Now this semester, are intended to deepen understanding of the theme throughout the campus community. The four contributing faculty members represent each School of Excellence.

heather_macalisterMacalister is a life-span developmental psychologist with an interest in women’s psychosocial development in adolescence, young adulthood, and midlife. At Mary Baldwin she is co-head of the psychology department and teaches the developmental psychology sequence (Child Psych, Adolescent Psych, and Adulthood) as well as Psychology of Women and Introductory Psychology.

The annual college theme is chosen to unite the Mary Baldwin community around a central idea that fosters civic and global engagement. The theme gives definition to the academic year and a way to link together the work of students, faculty, and staff from all disciplines and programs.

The Courage to Fail

“If you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far.” – Steve Jobs

The word “courage” brings to mind images of lions and heroes and faraway battlefields.  But it’s also an everyday construct, for ordinary people under ordinary circumstances. It requires a certain bravery to live a full life, to strive for self-actualization.

Asked how her day at school went, my 7-year-old daughter told me yesterday, “Good. It was easy. I finished all my math, language, and science early.” Not pleased, I responded, “Oh, it sounds like you need more challenge.  If the work’s too easy, you can’t learn from it and you can’t progress.  The way to tell if the work is the right level for you is if you’re making a few mistakes.  If you don’t make any mistakes, it’s too easy.  If you can’t get through it because you’re making so many mistakes, it’s too challenging.  If you make a few mistakes, you’re at the right level — it’s important to make mistakes so you can learn.”

Many of us have not been encouraged to make mistakes.  Mistakes equal failure.  Most of us want to avoid failure.  Some of us downright fear it.  A failure is a setback. When we fail, we watch others surge ahead from our spot down in the dust. Millennial Generation youth, in particular, have been encouraged to toe the line and keep up with their ever-achieving peers.  For all their virtues, achievement and compliance among them, Millennials (born between 1982 and 2002) have been described by generational experts Howe and Strauss (2003) as risk-averse — and as a result, sorely lacking in creativity. The worry for a generation seen as thinking largely inside the box is an absence of visionary leadership.

Social psychologist Teresa Amabile’s (1996) landmark research on creativity suggests that the courage to take risks comes from having self-chosen tasks or self-defined problem — in other words, intrinsically motivated work. Such work may be hard to find (or unpleasant) for Millennials educated under “No Child Left Behind” and its emphasis on choosing the right multiple-choice answer. It should be noted, though, that popular child psychologist Eda LeShan presaged Amabile’s findings back in 1968: “Despite the fact that every discovery, every invention, every work of art has been created out of the inner courage, the capacity to accept the possibility of failure, we seem to be forcing our children into a position where failure is intolerable and to be avoided at all costs” (p. 336).

Biology equips us with something akin to courage at adolescence, or maybe something akin to stupidity.  Thanks to changes in neurotransmitter receptors in the limbic system of the brain caused by pubertal hormone shifts, we require ever-riskier experiences to give us the same dopamine payoff.  At younger ages, stealing from the cookie jar right before dinner was an adequate thrill.  But at adolescence, especially with a mixed-gender peer audience, only something far more dangerous will give us sufficient neurochemical reward.  And tragically, the brain’s so-called “area of sober second thought” is asleep at the wheel: the prefrontal cortex’s capacity for making good decisions doesn’t finish developing until we’re in our late 20s. Some psychologists (e.g., Dahl, 2004) have argued that brain development is set up this way to push us from the nest. Giving up the safety and familiarity of the family of origin requires courage — or at least a hormonal boost.

Once the executive function of the prefrontal cortex is fully mature, we rein in risky behavior by thoughtfully weighing the pros and cons of our potential actions and making more careful decisions before we act. We’re now naturally (biologically, chemically) more risk-averse.  So, Millennial young adults’ motivation to avoid risk of failure is a product of both nurture and nature.

Avoiding failure is easy.  If you don’t try, you can’t fail.  Taking the easy route and choosing non-challenging tasks guarantees a minimal level of success.  Of course — as President Theodore Roosevelt is known for saying something along the lines of — “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” The daughter I mentioned attends a Montessori school, where children choose their own work.  She usually likes to choose the easy, gray twilight stuff.  So, I need to work on setting her up for failure.  Part of the Homelander Generation, my daughter may be more likely to receive “resilience parenting” than “helicopter parenting” by which she develops the courage to take risks by discovering that failing is critical to both learning and creativity.

Creative, visionary leadership is not risk-averse.  On the contrary, failure is built into success.  Steve Jobs provided an excellent illustration of this, known for his successes that would not have been possible without his failures.  The good news for Millennials?  Those who can find the courage to fail — and develop their creativity by doing so — may find themselves very much in demand.


Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in context. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Dahl, R. (2004). Adolescent brain development: A period of vulnerabilities and opportunities.  Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1021, 1-22.

Howe, N., & Strauss, W. (2003). Millennials go to college. U.S.: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and LifeCourse Associates.

Jobs, S. (1994, November 14). Interview. Santa Clara Valley Historical Association. NeXT Headquarters, Redwood City, CA.

LeShan, E. (1968). The conspiracy against childhood. NY: Atheneum.

Roosevelt, T. (1910, April 23). The man in the arena: Citizenship in a republic. Address delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris.