Past Event

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

December 7, 2017 - December 8, 2017
8:30 AM - 4:30 PM
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Horace Mann Hall (Cowin Auditorium), Teachers College, New York

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

Gertrude Stein
failure poster

The event recording is available via YouTube. 

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.

  • Sara Jane Bailes (Associate Professor in Theatre and Performance Studies; University of Sussex)
  • John Black (Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications & Education; Teachers College, Columbia University)
  • Catherine Chase (Assistant Professor of Cognitive Studies; Teachers College, Columbia University)
  • Harry Collins (Distinguished Research Professor of Social Sciences; Cardiff University)
  • John Collins (Artistic Director; Elevator Repair Service)
  • Carl Hart (Dirk Ziff Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry; Columbia University)
  • Jennifer Hecht (Historian and Author)
  • Matthew Jones (James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization, Columbia University)
  • David Kaiser (Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and Professor of Physics; Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
  • Xiaodong Lin (Professor of Cognitive Studies; Teachers College, Columbia University)
  • Mario Livio (Professor of Astrophysics; University of Nevada, Las Vegas)
  • David Madigan (Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Professor of Statistics; Columbia University)
  • Alondra Nelson (Professor of Sociology; Columbia University)
  • Peter Norvig (Director of Research; Google)
  • Katharina Pistor (Michael I. Sovern Professor of Law, Columbia University Law School)
  • Scott Sandage (Associate Professor of History; Carnegie Mellon University)
  • Luz Santana (Co-Director; Right Question Institute)
  • Jutta Schickore (Professor of History of Science; Indiana University Bloomington)
  • Michael Shadlen (Professor of Neuroscience; Columbia University Medical Center)
  • Robert Siegler (Teresa Heinz Professor of Cognitive Psychology; Carnegie Mellon University)
  • Lisa Son (Associate Professor of Psychology; Barnard College, Columbia University)
  • John Spiro (Deputy Scientific Director; Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative)
  • Chris Washburne (Associate Professor of Music; Columbia University)
  • Jonathan Weiner (Maxwell M. Geffen Professor of Medical and Scientific Journalism; Columbia University Journalism School)
  • Josh Wolfe (Co-Founder and Managing Partner; Lux Capital)
  • Tim Wu (Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law; Columbia University Law School)
  • Stuart Firestein (Professor of Biological Sciences; Columbia University)
  • Eileen Gillooly (Executive Director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities and Society of Fellows, Adjunct Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender; Columbia University)
  • Jeremy Kessler (Associate Professor of Law; Columbia University Law School)
  • Xiaodong Lin (Professor of Cognitive Studies; Teachers College, Columbia University)
  • Pamela Smith (Seth Low Professor of History and Director of the Center for Science and Society; Columbia University)

This conference is supported, in part, by the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP) at Columbia University and the John Templeton Foundation.