Greg Bruce examines why it's better to have tried and lost than never to have tried at all.

Peter Nicol, 32, was nearing the end of a career in which he'd established himself as one of the greatest squash players in history. Between 1998 and 2004 he'd dominated the sport, including two unbroken years as world number one, an achievement almost unheard of in squash.

By the time of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, though, the Brit was past his best. He arrived in Melbourne out of form. He was still the number four ranked player at the tournament but he was just months away from retirement and there had been a changing of the guard at the sport's top level.

Nevertheless, he played extremely well throughout the tournament and made the final. His opponent was Australian David Palmer - number one in the world, at his absolute physical peak, the clear favourite. In the semifinals, Palmer destroyed his semifinal opponent, the number five seed; Nicol dropped a game in getting past the seventh seed.


Dr Stafford Murray - who was there that day as the team analyst for England Squash, but is now head of innovation at High Performance Sport New Zealand - says on the night of the final there was a crowd of about 3500 Aussies cheering for Palmer and "about five Brits sitting in the corner" cheering for Nicol.

In spite of it all, Nicol stuck it to the Aussie with a dominant performance, won the gold medal and ended his career in glory. By global historical sporting standards, it wasn't one of the great upsets - Nicol was a living legend - but what made it significant was the fact that, at arguably the most important squash tournament in the world, at the end of a long and brilliant career, on the night before the final, Peter Nicol decided to change the way he gripped his racquet.

It's hard to overstate what a dramatic change this is for an elite athlete who has perfected his grip by hitting probably millions of shots over several decades.

Murray says, "Even his coach, my old mate, he was like, 'Bloody hell, are you sure?' But no, he did it, and I can picture it like it was yesterday."

The grip gave Nicol better access to his drop shot, which helped negate Palmer's power game: "And that's the thing that made the difference," Murray says.

It was a massive risk. He must have been afraid it would end in disaster. After all, he'd conquered the world doing one thing, and now he was doing something completely different. If he'd lost the match, he could have regretted the decision for the rest of his life. But if he'd not taken any risk and lost the match, would that have been any better?

This sort of apparent risk was actually nothing new for Nicol. He'd spent his career, Murray says, asking every scientist and coach around him, "What can I do differently? If I keep doing the same thing I'm not going to stay at the top. I need to keep changing, I need to keep evolving."

Peter Nicol in 2003. Photo/Getty
Peter Nicol in 2003. Photo/Getty

In Nicol's off-court analysis, Murray says, he only ever wanted to see video of matches he'd lost. On the practice court, he only wanted to work on his weaknesses. This set him apart even from players just a few places below him in the world rankings. "The best in the world, that's what they do," Murray says. "That's their different mindset. They're not scared of failure."


He adds: "The most consistent winning athletes or teams force change, embrace change. The old saying used to be, 'If it ain't broke don't fix it'; whereas now the saying is, 'If it ain't broke, consider breaking it'."

Failure is good for us. This is not news. It's 22 years since the famous Nike ad in which Michael Jordan said, "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

That ad might have been light on science and long on perilously selective use of stats, but its message was scientifically sound. Success in life stems from failure and there's plenty of evidence to prove it.

In research published in 2010 on failure in organisations, Professor Vinit Desai from the University of Colorado said: "We found that the knowledge gained from success was often fleeting while knowledge from failure stuck around for years."

He wrote: "...leaders should treat failures as invaluable learning opportunities."

He singled out the airline industry, where every accident is forensically investigated assessed and its lessons immediately assimilated into worldwide training programmes, with the result that the air accident rate continues to decline even as the skies become ever-more crammed, and new airlines spring up almost constantly.

Research in the education field has also repeatedly shown the value of failure as a learning tool.

When we think about why something is wrong, we create new connections in the brain, which make it grow, Stanford University professor of mathematics education Jo Boaler wrote in a 2013 article: "Students need to be working on challenging work that results in mistakes," Boaler wrote. "Their mistakes should be valued for the opportunities they provide for brain development and learning."

Michael Jordan in action in 1995. Photo/Getty
Michael Jordan in action in 1995. Photo/Getty

Leading New Zealand education researcher Karen Vaughan wrote in 2016, "A fear of failure inhibits some important aspects of a person's (and even an organisation's) capability such as: creativity, responsibility, commitment, exploration, leadership, pleasure, relationship-building, tenacity, resilience, resourcefulness, playfulness, and collaboration. These are things that make our lives go well and allow us to contribute to others' lives and to the world."

Despite all the evidence, in place after place, time after time, fear of failure prevents us achieving our goals and living our best lives.

In New Zealand's high schools maths classrooms, this fear is often prevalent, says Aaron Peeters, an academic working towards his PhD at the University of Auckland, who co-authored a 2015 paper titled, Learning how to learn from mistakes. Errors are seen as undesirable, he says, and the standard format involves the teacher modelling something correctly and the students trying to replicate it correctly.

"In that set-up," he says, "If you didn't get it, it's like you weren't paying attention or you're not smart enough; you haven't learned what you've just been shown, so there must be something wrong with you."

What Peeters is trying to help create is a shift toward a classroom where it's safe to make errors and therefore to learn from them. It sounds like the type of thing every teacher would try for, so why doesn't it already exist?

Part of the problem, he says, is that both teachers and kids are worried about embarrassment, so kids don't volunteer information and teachers don't try to elicit errors, and if a student gets something wrong teachers tend to just repeat the material without analysing the reasons behind the mistake.

Teachers told him they spent a lot of time trying to build positive relationships with students and were worried that embarrassing them would undermine that.

Peeters says, "I think if you communicate that errors are expected and actually do help you to learn when you discuss them and they're normal, like you're not the only one making it… then a lot of the psychological risk in the classrooms we experience at the moment can be reduced."

What he is aiming to develop is a model whereby students commit to an answer, get it wrong, and have the instruction come afterwards, "Because the research shows they're more likely to remember it and make sense of it."

Peeters has been influenced by the work of American scholars Harold Stevenson and James Stigler who, in 1992, investigated and compared teaching practices in China, Japan and the United States and produced the landmark book The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Chinese and Japanese education.

One of the things they learned was that, in Japanese classrooms, incorrect answers were sought, expected and not stigmatised - and that those classrooms were producing far superior results to their American counterparts.

Peeters says the starting point for his research came from his experience in the classroom, where he could see kids weren't asking questions even though they weren't understanding.

"The more you don't understand, the less questions you ask and the less questions you ask the less you understand. The pointlessness of that really hooked me in - just thinking, 'How can we interrupt this?' Because it's not doing anyone any favours."

Karen Vaughan leads the New Zealand Council of Educational Research's programme on vocational and professional education and has recently conducted extensive research into three groups of people in the early stages of their careers: carpenters, engineer technicians and general practitioners. What she's found is that each have very different ways of dealing with errors.

GPs, who in their early days on the job often live in terror of making mistakes that can affect people's lives, have a very structured approach, including reflective practice groups and supervision sessions where they can talk about what's going on and share it with other registrars or their supervisor.

Carpenters, whose mistakes are less likely to be life-threatening, are more likely to manage errors on site and to do things like forcing the mistake-maker to buy a box of beers or deal with it through teasing and banter.

The engineer technicians tend have a two-part arrangement: formal mentoring on technical skills with a project team leader inside their team, and support with more dispositional skills from a mentor outside their team. This formal separation allows the technicians a safe space to admit or explore things that they might not feel free or comfortable discussing with someone they work with regularly.

Dr Karen Vaughan, senior researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
Dr Karen Vaughan, senior researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

None of these approaches is inherently better, Vaughan says, but what they all acknowledge is the importance of reflection. "They all encourage people to stand back from their practice, from their work, and think about what they've done from different angles."

In all of these cases, as with the rest of this article, actually, there's been a lot of talk about mentors and teachers. What space does that leave for us to deal with our own stuff? Not much actually. We often don't know when we're doing poorly and even when we do, we don't necessarily have any idea how to fix it.

Vaughan says that without a way of stopping and thinking about what you're doing, you can be setting yourself up for failure, "Because you're just blindly blitzing on through. You don't have time to catch your breath, see it from a different angle, have someone ask you a probing question. When you don't have time for that, it's a problem."

These times may not necessarily be built into people's workdays though. She says people are ingenious at finding other ways for it too: watercooler talk, barbecue chat, war stories at the pub.

"The only bummer is that if you do it that way, it's very unstructured and you may end up talking about your war stories but you might not actually be able to step forward and learn from it. You might just be churning it round over and over."

There's a more fundamental question we haven't asked here yet and that's, "What is failure anyway?" How we define failure in the first place is what determines how we experience it and how we might learn from it, and it's not always clear what that definition should be.

"So it may not be a failure for some people to not complete their apprenticeship," Vaughan says. "It actually might be a good thing. They might discover, 'I don't like being out in the rain and getting dirty and doing all this hard work and injuring myself constantly.' So that's actually a success, not a failure. It's all how you frame it really."

She cites the case of an army cadet officer who told her he'd left the army, feeling it had failed him. She also spoke to the cadet's commanding officer who told her they got rid of him because he wasn't cutting it.

"Which is the truth?" she asks.

The answer, she says, is that they're both true in a way. She says, "This is how you move through the world - you have a narrative about yourself."

Not everything in life can be as black and white as a maths problem or a sports scoreboard. Sometimes, it seems, the best bet might be to just tell ourselves we're doing ok.