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Failure is in fashion, but this isn’t some new passing trend.

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Years ago, Silicon Valley jumped on the “fail better” bandwagon, touting folded startups as almost a prerequisite for eventual success. Their enthusiasm for falling short can, at times, seem to border on comical, but even critics concede there is something to be said for rejecting the nation’s conventional (and harmful) attitude towards failure as mark of shame.

Now, the “fail better” philosophy has worked its way out of entrepreneurship and into curriculums. As universities find their students struggling to cope with even the smallest stumbles—being rejected from clubs or failing one term paper, for example—they’ve seen the need to deliberately and formally normalize failure.

Some worry that our kids’ paralyzing fear of failure is a symptom of coddling or unreasonable expectations, and has once again raised the question of whether modern life has brought with it unique psychological challenges.

An opinion in the British Medical Journal suggests otherwise. Writing back in 1906, the author laments the reluctance of professionals and peers to admit their own stumbles, and encourages sharing experiences of which we may be less than proud.

Apparently, even in the 1900s, early iterations of today’s “failure classes” were taking place in forms of lectures and papers—and being appreciated for their forthrightness:

In a paper entitled “The Teachings of Failures,” recently read by Dr. Frank le Moyne Hupp before the West Virginia State Medical Association at Wheeling, we have a candid account of the class of chastening experience which it is good for us to have on record. The cases narrated refer only to errors in diagnosis, disappointing results from treatment, and misfortunes, more or less unavoidable, met with in surgical practice…We ought to hail with satisfaction any testimony which reminds us of the imperfections of our art and the limitations of our science. It is a wholesome counterpoise to the prevailing note of optimistic self-satisfaction.

The writer suggests that being open about failure is a mark of strength, not a confession of inadequacy, stating:

The confession of failure is the most powerful of all evidence in favour of vigorous rectitude, but there are few possessed of moral fibre firm enough to bear the strain of condemnatory criticism applied by themselves to their own work…The fear that such admissions may tarnish the reputation which has been acquired hinders the majority of men from any public avowal of the mistakes and failures which, none the less, have been real stepping-stones in the development of their lives.

Echoing sentiments of today’s instructors, the writer encourages an overall openness about admitting we inevitably do not always succeed, and embracing that that very fact is what sets us up for the times when we do.

“So it is with medicine, surgery, and all human acts; success is reached through failure, perfection is attained through the laborious conquest of many imperfections, and facility is the ultimate reward of persevering enthusiasm.”

Even in 1906.


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The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2360 (Mar. 24, 1906), p. 695
The British Medical Journal