Skip to main content


The Success of Failure: Perspectives from the Arts, Sciences, Humanities, Education, and Law

General Programming

  • The Center for Science and Society
  • Teachers College, Columbia University
  • Registration required. See details.

A real failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself. – Gertrude Stein

We are all familiar with the many bromides teaching us the value of failure on the path to success. It builds character, shows perseverance and dedication, demonstrates willingness to take a risk, and so forth. All perhaps true, but all constrained by a view of failure as a means to an end, an unfortunately necessary obstacle to be overcome. One may learn from failures, but what is mostly meant is that one learns not to do that particular thing again. Failing is fine, especially on someone else’s dime, if you gain some experience to avoid future failures.

We take here an alternative view of failure. What about failure as a good? What about the intrinsic value of failure? How about failure that contains valuable data, not just an error message? Failure that is a critical part of the process, not a means to an end? Failure that stands shoulder to shoulder with success? Can there be such a thing as positive failure? Can failure make progress? Can we use failure to improve creativity, education, or behavior? How do we research failure? How do we discover important failures? How do we recognize important failures? This symposium will investigate these and other perspectives on failure across disciplines, searching for commonalities and differences.

This symposium follows on the conference, Evidence: An Interdisciplinary Conversation about Knowing and Certainty, held at Columbia University April 21-22, 2017. Similar in format, Failure will bring together scholars and practitioners in the arts, sciences (natural and social), humanities, economics, business, law, and education to examine the value of failure in making progress in each of these areas. Speakers and participants will include academic and industry leaders from around the world and within the Columbia University community. Historical, current, and future perspectives will be discussed through a combination of short presentations, discussions, and panels divided by disciplinary topic. In order to foster cross-disciplinary interactions and generate new ideas, speakers will participate as respondents to the presentations in other sessions.

****Free and open to the public, registration required. – REGISTER HERE.****

This conference is supported, in part, by the John Templeton Foundation.

  • Speaker Sara Jane Bailes Reader in Theatre & Performance Studies (English) University of Sussex
  • Speaker David Kaiser Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, Program in Science, Technology & Society, & Professor of Physics, Department of Physics Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Speaker Xiaodong Lin Professor of Cognitive Studies Teachers College, Columbia University
  • Speaker Mario Livio Professor of Astrophysics University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  • Speaker Peter Norvig Director of Research Google
  • Speaker Katharina Pistor Michael I. Sovern Professor of Law Columbia Law School
  • Speaker Scott Sandage Associate Professor of History Carnegie Mellon University
  • Speaker Luz Santana Co-Director Right Question Institute
  • Speaker Jutta Schickore Professor of History of Science Indiana University
  • Speaker Chris Washburne Associate Professor of Music Columbia University