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True grit – failure as a key ingredient for success

Preventing children from experiencing failure may lead to greater failures in later life

– this is the view of Macquarie University Vice Chancellor Steven Schwartz.

"If we want young people to be able to handle life's inevitable slings and arrows... we must let them fail", says Schwartz, writing in the Australian Financial Review and Times Higher Education Supplement.

Persistence, courage and determination are the character traits forged by experiencing and overcoming failure and they are needed for success in any field.

What are the prospects for students graduating from an "every child wins a prize" school culture, where failure is a dirty word?

Bleak, according to author Tim Harford, who argues that failure is central to learning, with students gaining more from mistakes and blind alleys than from success.

The military has long known this and tests the 'true grit' of its potential recruits in basic training.  Those that do not have the resilience to cope with difficult situations are weeded out.

The benefits of learning from failure are catching on in business.  Harvard Business Review has devoted its entire April 2011 edition to failure – how to recognize it, how to handle it and how to learn from it.

In many companies, people may fear failure, but they fear the consequences a lot more, creating a clash between the performance culture and the learning culture.  While no one desires failure, it should not be treated as 'radioactive' to the point where it stifles risk and innovation.

Perhaps the last word should go to Michael Jordan who, in his famous Nike ad, observes that he has missed more than 9,000 shots and lost 300 basketball games in his career – "I have failed over and over again in my life – and that is why I succeed".

IHR believes that leadership, from the CEO down, is crucial to managing and balancing both employee learning and performance.

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