Exploring Best Failures

Student sitting in Greiner Hall looking out a window.

Not all failures are best failures. If we are able to identify and explore our most powerful failures, we can reap the many benefits, releasing us from stagnation and stuckness, and leading us to growth and success.

Project description

To be clear, not all failures are best failures. Most are uninteresting, simply not getting what we want, or thought we wanted. But some failures are more complex and meaningful. They involve acting on some core intention, the essence of what we believe or are trying to offer, and then hitting a proverbial wall- running into someone or something we didn’t expect or see coming. Best failures are painful in a special way. Their impact stays with us, altering our behavior and how we see the world. Best failures matter. They are inherently powerful and beckon us to examine them more closely.

In a 2013 post, I mused that just once, I would like to go to a conference that focused on best failures rather than best practices. I was tired of pretending that we had it all figured out, holding up programs as examples of excellence and superiority, with participants taking notes and hoping to replicate results. I knew then, and still know, that focusing on successes can only get us so far. Instead, if we are able to explore our most powerful failures, we can reap the many benefits, identifying structural errors and false assumptions that can release us from stagnation and stuckness, and lead us to growth and expansion.

So why are there no best failures conferences or symposia? Because failure is closely associated with feelings of shame and embarrassment, and getting too close can result in negative emotions and discomfort. But what if we could get some emotional distance and create space for holding up our best failures as opportunities for growth, learning, and innovation. Not just any failures, mind you, but the really powerful ones, the ones that will lead to new opportunities and expansion, the type of growth that we all need and crave.

Through this project, students are invited to tap into the power of best failures.

Project outcome

Students will work through a 4-step process, working towards the following outcomes:

  • recognition of fundamental errors in thinking and false assumptions that can undermine success and opportunities
  • enhanced understanding of choices related to growth and opportunity
  • clarified plans related to future activities and goals 
  • a sense of empowerment and control related to success and future opportunities

Project details

Timing, eligibility and other details
Length of commitment Flexible
Start time Flexible 
Level of collaboration Flexible
Benefits Varied
Who is eligible Anyone

Project mentor

Mara Huber

Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning, Director of

Experiential Learning Network

Phone: (716) 829-2834

Email: mbhuber@buffalo.edu

Start the project

  1. Email the project mentor using the contact information above to express your interest and get approval to work on the project. (Here are helpful tips on how to contact a project mentor.)
  2. After you receive approval from the mentor to start this project, click the button to start the digital badge. (Learn more about ELN's digital badge options.) 

Preparation activities

Once you begin the digital badge series, you will have access to all the necessary activities and instructions. Your mentor has indicated they would like you to also complete the specific preparation activities below. Please reference this when you get to Step 2 of the Preparation Phase. 

  • Before getting started with the project, students will submit a 1-2 page paper detailing their best failure and why they deem it worthy of their time and investment in this project. 
    • Consider the following prompt when writing: Best failures are not about simple rejection or not getting what you want. They are symbolic stories, representing grand attempts to engage your mission or core contributions, going for it, throwing your heart and soul into something of importance, only to hit a wall. Best failures leave you reeling, profoundly disappointed, and in some way changed by the experience. Because so few failures are best failures, you will need some time to sort through your collection and identify those worthy of further exploration. Imagine yourself sorting through your closet, briefly examining each garment, deciding which to keep and which to give away. As you bring potential candidates into consideration, ask yourself whether it is a symbolic and important failure with lessons to reveal. If not, acknowledge its lack of significance, and decide to simply let it go.