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  • Writer's pictureAnand Mahadevan

Embracing Failure

I didn’t always want to be a teacher, of course. I grew up in India and graduated from a very competitive and caring school and, like many of our bright kids, I wanted to be a doctor. When I was seventeen years old, in the weeks after my high school graduation, my family immigrated to Canada. We came to Toronto in 1996 with just $500 in our pockets. I still remember the startled look on the immigration officer’s face when he realized how little we had brought from India to start our lives here. In the two decades since, I picked up a few degrees at universities in the US and in Canada. I got to spend time researching in Germany and Switzerland, publish a couple of academic papers, a novel, a few short stories in anthologies, and teach over a thousand students. I’d like to meet that immigration officer again and see what he thinks of us now.

How did this happen? How did I go from a teenager arriving with so little at Toronto’s Pearson Airport in 1996, to meeting Justin Trudeau last year, to speaking to you here tonight?

The answer in one word is “opportunity”. Someone took a chance and believed in me. They offered me an opportunity.

The second part of the answer has to do with me: I seized every opportunity that was given to me and believe me, I’ve squandered quite a few along the way. When I was graduating high-school, my parents believed that I was going to become a doctor — a stable job with an excellent income, a prestigious career which they could wield as a boast among their peers and in their social circles.

But I quickly grew to be a disappointment. As an undergrad I switched from studying to be a neurosurgeon to researching neural circuits underlying motion, and studying cross-cultural influences in Thomas Mann’s writings by immersing myself into the liberal arts environment of my college. Later, as a graduate student, I missed literature and the classroom, so I gave up the lab bench to become a teacher and writer. Each of these decisions was tough because most people view such changes in direction as failures. It took my mother a good ten years to forgive me when I turned down a fully-funded Stanford PhD. But each of these “failures” led me to do some soul-searching, they helped me learn more about myself and grow into the person I am today.

And that’s really what I want to talk about today. How can we give our kids the opportunities to fail? And I am not talking about the “fail” that kids toss around in the hallways when they get eight out of ten on a quiz. I am talking about real failure: the kind that sucks the air out of our lungs and leaves a pit in the bottom of our stomach, the kind of failure that stuns us for a moment.

Why, you ask? Why should we subject our kids to such a horror? Shouldn’t our jobs as teachers and parents, as adults, be to protect them from such blows to their confidence, such assaults on their self-esteem?

The reason why I believe we should promote opportunities for our kids to fail is because of what follows those failures. It’s after our kids fail that we have a transformative role as adults. We get to teach them how to absorb that shock of failure, how to take that loss and make it into a lesson, how to pick oneself up, dust off and start again. It’s that learning from failure that gives our kids the skills to be truly successful in life.

The truth is, we cannot protect our children from failure. As they grow older, they will make mistakes at home and in the classroom, in person and online. Sometimes they will fail because they don’t understand the rules of the world that you and I have created. Other times they will fail because they will use rules that you and I have taught them in a world where our rules no longer apply. We know this, because the world is changing faster than ever.

My parents who grew up with telegrams and telexes in India are learning to use AirBNB and Uber, figuring out how to talk to their granddaughter on Skype and WhatsApp. They make mistakes and lose money and time because they are learning the rules of this new online, connected world. And, like kids growing up in our world, they are in equal parts amazed and petrified by it. I am proud that they are choosing to engage and push themselves to grow in this new world rather than choosing to hide from it.

As an educator, I am aware that we are trying to prepare our students to live in a world that does not yet exist and to help them create such a world with tools that are not yet made. I must overcome my own fears of this uncertain world and hope that they will thrive in a society whose rules are not yet written. And in my view, the only way to help our kids succeed is to view today’s failures as stepping stones to future success. And part of that teaching is to model this failure.

A few years ago when I was teaching at UTS, a grade 11 student named Patrick, came to me to ask why hot water freezes faster than cool water. I remember poo-poohing the idea and providing good scientific rationale, as I knew it, to dismiss the question. Patrick persisted and sent me the research paper he’d read on the Mpemba effect.

When I read the paper, I realized that I’d been wrong to dismiss his suggestion. My previously acquired knowledge was not going to explain this ambiguous and confusing phenomenon, and so I found him and apologized to him. And in his honour, we ran three weeks of experiments in my physics class that year to explore the Mpemba effect in detail. We then invited him to join us and presented our findings to him. Patrick is graduating from university this year and I hope that he will continue to challenge people around him to grow as he challenged us to grow at UTS.

The best part of these three-week experiments at UTS was not helping Patrick see that we were willing to learn and grow from his question but that not one of my 20-odd physics students could come up with a reasonable answer to the Mpemba effect question. It remained an unsolved oddity, but every one of us got to experience the way science works in a lab setting — not the safe cookie-cutter labs in school that always provide a reliable answer but as that volatile and uncertain science that produces complex and ambiguous answers, as in the real world.

A hundred years ago, Newton’s classical world was shaken: the notion of using simple equations to predict how bodies move in space had to give way to a newer physics of uncertainty. Similarly, we educators are also giving up the idea that a fixed path of marks equals success. Instead, we are building on the idea of giving students chances to grow from their missteps and to learn from their failures.

Despite our deepest desires as adults to make the world safe for our kids, to try and shape the world into a mold that lays out a clear path from Kindergarten to Harvard to a prestigious career as a doctor, the truth is that they are living in this post-Newtonian VUCA world: a volatile world with uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And if we want them to be successful, we have to teach them to be resilient and adaptable, to be flexible in their approaches to life and its problems, to be willing to be wrong, and to learn from mistakes. It’s what Carol Dweck calls “The Growth Mindset”.

The growth mindset emphasizes skills over content, effort over ability. It’s about working smart and not just looking smart. It’s about viewing oneself as a lifelong learner rather than as a talented expert.

When I first started teaching, I admit that I took the kids’ successes as a sign of my talent as a teacher. If someone from my class got into MIT or Cambridge that meant I was a good teacher. Over the years, I’ve realized that Dweck is right. If someone from my class got into Johns Hopkins or McMaster Health Sciences, it’s because they were a hard-working student willing to take calculated risks and try new things. My ability as an educator had very little to do with their success, but I hope my effort in the classroom has contributed to the process of their learning and growth.

Let me close by returning to my own graduation from high school.

My classmates believed strongly that I would become a successful doctor or a great surgeon. So haven’t I failed by giving up on that dream and becoming a teacher? Am I not a living example of that saying “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach?” And here’s my response: By the time I retire from teaching, hundreds of my students will have become doctors and surgeons. Others will have become lawyers and humanitarians, scholars and chefs, architects and engineers. To me, that’s a way better outcome than the single surgeon I might have become.

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