Learning how to fail

Catherine Raffaele. Photo by: Shane Lo

Catherine Raffaele. Photo by: Shane Lo

In summary: 
  • As the economy shifts from the industrial to the information age, the boundaries between employment and entrepreneurialism are blurring
  • PhD candidate Catherine Raffaele explains how teaching students to fail and learn from their mistakes will lead to more entrepreneurs, and more successful entrepreneurs

As the old adage goes, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’. So why then, do our schools so often penalise failure? PhD candidate Catherine Raffaele explains why more students need be taught how to fail, and how they can learn from their mistakes.

We don’t have to go very far to see a story about how the workforce is changing. As the economy shifts from the industrial age to the information age, the standardisation and security of work that characterised much of the 20th century is fast being replaced by fragmentation and risk.

While once permanent full-time employment was the norm, we are now becoming increasingly detached from organisations and institutions – by choice or by circumstance.

More and more people are working independently as entrepreneurs, freelancers and contractors. And it has been estimated that by 2020, over half of the workforce in the United States will be independently employed. It’s a trend Australia looks to be following.

Student preparing for fieldwork in the Hatchery. Photo by: Shane Lo Students preparing for fieldwork in the Hatchery. Photo by: Shane Lo

At the same time, the boundaries between employment and entrepreneurialism are blurring. One research firm estimates today’s school leavers will have an average of 17 employers and five different careers over the course of their life. Similarly, in a 2015 global study, 65 per cent of young people expressed a desire to start their own business. Put it all together, and it’s likely the working lives of future generations will include spells of both employment and self-employment.

Even for those who forgo self-employment the lines will still blur. Increasingly, employees are being required to take an entrepreneurial approach to developing their skills and managing their careers. We can no longer rely on organisations to help us to do so.

In addition, a number of large companies are encouraging employees to undertake entrepreneurial ventures in-house, in the hope of increasing their innovation and disrupting themselves before they are disrupted by others.

Despite the greater interest and uptake in entrepreneurialism, starting a new venture remains challenging. Many businesses struggle to get off the ground and being self-employed can also be an isolating experience.

If we need to become more entrepreneurial, how can we learn how? More so, how can we learn to be better entrepreneurs and thrive in the new economy?

I’m undertaking doctoral research in the School of Education to address these questions. I’m focusing my research on the role co-working spaces may play in supporting the development of entrepreneurial success.

Co-working is a practice where people occupy a desk on a casual or temporary basis in a workspace that is shared with others. It largely emerged in the mid-2000s in response to the increase in people working or starting businesses from home that needed more social interaction and the resources of a more professional workspace.

Over the past few years, the numbers of co-working spaces, in Australia and worldwide, has increased exponentially. As part of my research, I’m studying and participating in and observing the day-to-day practices of people starting and developing their businesses in co-working spaces. I’m also shadowing and undertaking case studies of individual new entrepreneurs’ trajectories to better understand the process of how people learn to be entrepreneurs and what can be done to support success.

Student preparing for fieldwork in the Hatchery. Photo by: Shane Lo Students preparing for fieldwork in the Hatchery. Photo by: Shane Lo

Through my interest in entrepreneurship and co-working spaces, I found out about the Hatchery. It is run by UTS’s Innovation and Creative Intelligence Unit and aims to develop students’ entrepreneurial skills through experiential learning. Students learn and practice how to develop and test an idea using human-centered design.

The Hatchery isn’t based in any one faculty, instead, any student enrolled at UTS – from any discipline, year or stage – can apply to be part of the extra-curricular course. It consists of two boot camp-style workshops and a six-week implementation program, and participating students also get access to work on their own projects in the space.

In Autumn 2015, I volunteered to be involved with the Hatchery’s organising team and participated as a student in the first cohort, giving feedback of my experience to the team. The following semester, I became a coach and now I am helping to design and teach the program.

What I am finding both from my research and my teaching at the Hatchery is the importance of learning how to fail and being able to learn from failure.

The more curious students are to test and find fault with their ideas, the more they are open to learning and understanding their users’ needs so they can better build the next version (or realise sooner that the idea is not worth the time and funds to pursue). Yet, so much of our schooling and assessment is geared around demonstrating that we are right and penalising failure.

Because we are not encouraged to fail when it should be to safe to do so, we don’t learn to recognise that not all failures bear the same risks. We don’t learn to differentiate between failure that we want to avoid and failure that can help us. When we attempt to avoid early failures when the stakes are low, we only increase the risk and cost of a later failure.

At the Hatchery, a student’s end goal is not to have the best idea, but to have learned the most. It’s only through seeking feedback and not being afraid to be wrong that the students do this.

If we want to better prepare our students for the workforce, we need to create more space for safe failure. We need to help students practise seeking failure when it helps, and to better avoid it when it doesn’t.