How To Have a Really Successful Failure is a publication for In The College Years, a collection of essays and other materials from the Bureau of Study Counsel at Harvard University. We recommend sharing the publication with your kids, particularly as they start thinking about and applying to college.

Below are our notes.

Motherly Life Notes

Someday your kids will try, audition, compete, interview, apply, love, promise, or otherwise attempt to achieve a goal. Ask yourself not if, but when they fail, will they be prepared to get up faster than they fell? Help your kids understand failure is part of life. Inspire them to persevere. The first step is to learn how to turn a failure into a successful failure.

Success Is Not Perfection

Failure is a part of human life. And when it occurs, it feels awful, like it’s the end of the road. But, remember that success does not mean perfection. If it did, then success would actually be the end. Rather, both failure and success are part of the journey and the story continues regardless. It’s never over.

Failure, in whatever form, is only a part of creating that journey. Learn from it, seek support and guidance when needed, and move forward.

Greatest Learning Comes from Failures

Our greatest lessons in life are typically earned during times that are challenging rather than triumphant. The essay references a speech by author J.K. Rowling at Harvard University. She said “failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way.  …  The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”

Help your kids work through their failures by encouraging them to tell the events from the perspective of their future self. Ask them to recall the story and include what they learned, who they turned to for help, and how they felt once they found the strength to overcome the present day failure.

Tips for Successful Failure

  • Feel bad, pay attention, and cope with the feeling.
  • Learn to recognize the signs of failure in advance, and learn to take action.
  • Admit the truth and welcome the situation into your life.
  • Articulate the learning.
  • Fail again and get better at it each time.


When you have a few minutes to spare, read the 2005 Stanford University Commencement Address by Steve Jobs. Then forward it to your kids and support their journey as they search for what they love.


Abigail Lipson, Bureau of Study Counsel, Harvard University

Top photo credit: Foundry Co | Pixabay