The importance of showing girls it’s OK to fail

Fear of failure can keep girls from taking risks.
Fear of failure can keep girls from taking risks.
Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A few years ago, I went to an entrepreneurship conference with a male student. At the registration desk, we were asked to choose name tags indicating whether we were novices, average, or experts in entrepreneurship. I remarked to my student, “You know, I don’t really think I’m an expert. Maybe I should just take ‘average.’” He immediately replied, “No way, we are experts!”

This floored me. After one year in class with me, this student felt comfortable calling himself an expert, while I was hesitant after teaching entrepreneurship for five years! We both took “expert” tags, and I haven’t looked back since.

Of course, many men experience this same kind of self-doubt. Jason Seats, a Techstars Ventures partner, observes, “Most founders I know have this deep-seated anxiety that they don’t really know what they are doing.” However, our culture encourages men to ignore their inner feelings of unworthiness and keep pushing their way to the top. Seats goes on to say, “The truth is that none of us really do [know what we are doing], but the people that end up doing the best are the ones that get really used to operating with that feeling of uncertainty in the pit of their stomach every day.” In other words, men are trained to “fake it till they make it,” while women learn instead to listen to the whispering voice of doubt … which leads them, all too often, to withdraw from the competitive battle.

Many ambitious, high-achieving girls have been raised to judge themselves by unrealistic standards, regarding anything short of perfection as inadequate and shameful. And ironically, the more successful some young women seem to be—as measured by high test scores, good grades, an attractive appearance, athletic skill, popularity—the more dangerous the drive for perfection can be. This drive can lead to the impostor syndrome, a pervasive feeling that, no matter how much you may have achieved, you are really a fraud and a failure whose shortcomings are sure to be exposed someday.

I observed the effects of female perfectionism and the impostor syndrome while teaching an undergraduate course in entrepreneurship at Trinity University in San Antonio. The course drew nearly equal numbers of male and female students, but the most vocal participants were the men. The women typically had to be called upon before they would speak up. They also tended to judge their own performance in class very harshly. All of these students were very bright; the simple fact that they’d been accepted at a competitive college like Trinity meant they’d been standouts in high school, consistently earning As and Bs. But when the male students earned an occasional C at Trinity, they quickly bounced back, while the females were devastated. In their eyes, a grade of C branded them as failures, unworthy even of a seat in class. It was the first time that I truly recognized how girls can be cowed and immobilized by gender stereotypes.

Of course, I did what I could to encourage the women in class. I called on them more, intervened when the men interrupted them (as they often did), and reassured them when they had trouble with a particular topic (as practically every student, male or female, sometimes did). But imposter syndrome is hard to shake. I’ve suffered from it. Even some of the world’s most successful women continue to grapple with it. Sheryl Sandberg, best-selling author and Facebook COO, told Womenomics authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”

The cure for crippling perfectionism is simple enough. It’s imperfection. It’s getting it wrong. For a student, it’s learning how to fail; and for a teacher or parent, it’s learning to value and appreciate failure rather than responding to it with criticism or disdain, and modeling how to use mistakes as stepping stones to deeper understanding.

That’s why, when I founded an organization that teaches entrepreneurship and technology to kids, I made sure that failure was part of the lesson plan. In every entrepreneurial class or camp we run, instructors ensure that there will be plenty of frustrating, laughable, “What was I thinking!?” failures. And how do we ensure this? It’s easy. We encourage girls to try new ideas, test them, stretch beyond their skill set, and take a shot at things that no one thinks will work. And they usually don’t work. That’s the beauty of it. We need only create an environment where failure is anticipated, welcomed, analyzed, and celebrated. When mistakes get made, we’ve been known to shake a can of carbonated water and spray the team, or break out New Year’s Eve noisemakers. When I say that we celebrate failures, I really mean it.

Girls who pass through our classes are often surprised and delighted to realize that while their ideas or experiments failed, often repeatedly, they succeeded. They realize that the goal of the course is not to earn a perfect score or a top grade, but rather to learn to think like an entrepreneur. And that means embracing failure. As a scientist, I see failure as part of the scientific method. In any sort of project or new endeavor, you develop a hypothesis and test it, and it either works or doesn’t work. A failure yields information—whether it’s questions missed or a hypothesis disproved. Failure means learning what doesn’t work, trying again a different way, and getting closer to a solution.

Entrepreneurs aren’t discouraged by failures—at least not for long. They learn from failures. Look at history: There are many well-known entrepreneurs who failed their way to success—J. K. Rowling, Henry Ford, Walt Disney. And Thomas Edison always said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” When entrepreneurs are knocked down, they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and incorporate what they’ve learned into their next moves. They refrain from casting blame.

Doesn’t that sound like someone you’d like to spend time with?

This article has been adapted from the book Venture Girls.