On the art of failing forward

Lost in research? Fieldwork under chaos? Congratulations! When we leave the comfort of the already known and fail (our expectations), new territories open up and valuable discoveries become possible. This process requires a reliable environment of support, trust, and collegiality. Also, the GIUZ can be and has been such an environment. 

seeds and clouds
Seeds need clouds. And a solid ground. (Photo: Alice Kern, Zurich, July 2020)


"A real failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself." (Gertrude Stein)ii


Failure, mistakes, and mess depend on our perception. They can also change our perception. Did Christopher Columbus make a mistake when he did not end up in India as expected? Did Alexander Fleming make a mess when his experiment got mouldy? Did Barbara McClintock fail to ever write a research plan? Yes, they didiii.  And they failed successfully because of their interest in the unexpected. It's exactly these failures, which moved them, and our knowledge, forward.

How do we move forward? At our department, fieldwork is an important part of geographical research. And fieldwork is surprising, unpredictable, and messy. And so is writing. And so is thinking. What, if this was not a problem, but the solution? What if this was exactly the adventure of research? 

Science is not a linear process, but full of uncertainties, contradictions, and risksiv.  Science is about being surprised by the unexpected.v  Science is about asking questions. And failures can help us to ask better and more relevant questions. Because failure means "a stripping away of the inessential".vi  Because failure provides (political and post-colonial) counter-narratives.vii  Because "failure can be a path into the unimaginable".viii 


"Too much mist

can't see Fuji -

makes it more interesting" (Basho)ix 


In our daily lives as geographers, we should accept the unexpected as a crucial part of our research.x  This process can lead us into confusion, lostness, and mess: the cloud.xi And this is a good thing. Because in this state of uncertainty, we are able to let go of what we took for granted. We get ready to think beyond the already known. We get ready to discover something new and explore unknown territories. We expand our horizon. We change perception. And ourselves.xii

Are we able to fail forward? This depends very much on two issues. First, it matters where and how we work. Failing successfully can only happen in a supportive environment.xiii  Such an environment defines failures as necessary for new insights and sees mistakes as possibilities for new discoveries. Such an environment allows people to fail and provides a solid ground of support and trust in the cloud. Second, it still matters very much who we are. Women and minorities are criticised more harshly for mistakes, failures, and mess.xiv  Which often leads them to return to the already known or to quit. Which prevents not only important insights and creative research, but also the necessary supportive environment for failing forwards. What does that mean for us at our department?


"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
(Samuel Beckett)xv


Let's get lost.
Learn to love the chaos. Embrace the mess.
Stop and reflect.xvi 
Allow yourself (and others) to be curious and creative.
Trust in process. And in each other.
Take time. Take care.xviii 
Share mistakes.xix
Be ready to change your perception.
Mess it up. Break through. Mess it up again.
Celebrate failure as much as success.
Support each other.
Learn to fail. And fail better.




 Any remaining errors are part of the experiment.
ii  Gertrude Stein. 1947. Four in America. New Haven: Yale University Press.
iii  And what about our failures? Probably, it is a failure of a different kind that the third name is much less familiar than the other two, and that it seems challenging to find more examples.
iv  See e.g. Florian Fisch. 2019. Good Research is Risky. In: Horizons: The Swiss Research Magazine. Feature: Research in Crisis Zones, edited by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. June 6.
v  Timmo Gaasbeek. 2010. Bridging troubled waters? Everyday inter-ethnic interaction in a context of violent conflict in Kottiyar Pattu, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. PhD Thesis: Wageningen University: Propositions.
vi  Joanne K. Rowling. 2008. The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination. Commencement address. The Harvard Gazette, June 5.  
vii  Karen Nairn; Jenny Munro & Anne B. Smith. 2005. "A Counter-Narrative of a 'Failed' Interview". Qualitative Research 5(2): 221-244.
viii  Stuart Firestine. 2019. How failure can be a path into the unimaginable. TEDxSanFrancisco.  
ix  Cited in: David P. Young, trans. 2013. Moon woke me up nine times. Selected Haiku of Basho. New York: Alfred A. Knopf: 25.
x  Alice Kern. 2015. Accept the Unexpected. Ethnographie als Lernprozess. In: Herausforderungen in der Qualitativen Sozialforschung. Forschungsstrategien von Studierenden für Studierende, edited by Jeannine Wintzer. Berlin & Heidelberg: Springer: 43-50.  
xi  Uri Alon. 2013. Why Science Demands a Leap into the Unknown. TEDGlobal Transcript. 
xii  See e.g. Judith Halberstam. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press.
xiii  Elly Harrowell; Thom Davies & Tom Disney. 2017. "Making Space for Failure in Geographic Research". The Professional Geographer X(00): 1-9.
xiv  Victoria L. Brescoll; Erica Dawson & Eric Luis Uhlmann. 2010. "Hard Won and Easily Lost: The Fragile Status of Leaders in Gender-Stereotype-Incongruent Occupations". Psychological Science 21(11): 1640-42. Also see Heather Sarsons. 2017. Interpreting Signals in the Labor Market: Evidence from Medical Referrals [Job Market Paper]. Working Paper, Harvard University.  
xv  Samuel Beckett. 1996 [1983]. "Worstward Ho". In: Nohow On, edited by S.E. Gontarski. New York: Grove Press: 89.
xvi  Paul Robbins & Sara H. Smith. 2017. "Baby Bust: Towards Political Demography." Progress in Human Geography 41(2): 199.
xvii  The Graduate Campus at the University of Zurich offers courses e.g. on Doing Creative Research (Dr. Alba Polo) and "Scheitern und Improvisation" (Dr. Daniela Landert):  
xviii  Alison Mountz; Anne Bonds; Becky Mansfield; Jenna Loyd; Jennifer Hyndman; Margaret Walton-Roberts; Ranu Basu; Risa Whitson; Roberta Hawkins; Trina Hamilton & Winifred Curran. 2015. For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 14(4): 1235-59.  
xix  More (of your own / famous / unknown) stories of (real / everyday) failures are welcome! You can send them to alice.kern@geo.uzh.ch and / or tell them the next colleague you meet on the corridor. You can also write a haiku / perform a dance / try snowboarding / help up a child learning to walk / look at the clouds / organise a celebration…