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Learning to Fail class teaches students to take risks, embrace failure

First-year Dylan Schneiderman walked out of Gross Hall with one mission on his mind—he had just more than an hour to persuade as many strangers as possible to play a game of tic-tac-toe. 

He was in competition with his classmates: for every undergraduate he acquired, he would earn two points, plus one point for every year they were above him; for every professor, he would receive 10; for every basketball player, 25; and if he could persuade women's basketball head coach Joanne P. McCallie, football head coach David Cutcliffe or men's basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski to play with him, he would get 100, 100 and 1,000 points, respectively.

This kind of task, though seemingly strange to outsiders, is commonplace for students in the course entitled “Learning to Fail,” taught by instructor and author Aaron Dinin, Trinity ‘05, and Amanda Gould, project coordinator and digital humanities specialist for the Franklin Humanities Institute. An Innovation and Entrepreneurship course, Learning to Fail has garnered a reputation on campus for centering around weekly wild, creative challenges.

“With the challenges, you really didn’t know what to expect, because [Dinin and Gould] didn’t tell you until you walked in the door,” said junior Jessica Zhao, a former student in the class. “But [the challenges] usually required us running around campus, engaging with strangers or deepening relationships that we already had and making us step out of our comfort zone and think creatively.”

The challenges were far from random, though—each one was carefully selected by Dinin and Gould to emphasize one of the core learning objectives of the class: resilience, awareness of difference, growth mindset, challenging discomfort, integrity and mindfulness. To them, all of these qualities are essential for entrepreneurs.

“We don’t think you can go into the world and be good entrepreneurs who make things for people and create things and make things happen if you’re not aware of difference,” Gould said. “We also talk about growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset, and how a growth mindset can actually open you to new experiences and new ways of reframing failure.”

Learning to Fail is a relatively new class at Duke. Dinin has been teaching it for four years and has been joined by Gould for the last two. The class grew out of a spontaneous experiment that Dinin conducted in 2015, when he was teaching a first-year Writing 101 class also entitled “Learning to Fail.”

“It was the day after the [Duke men’s basketball] national championship and I had a 10 a.m. class, so I figured my students were going to be not well-rested,” Dinin said. “So I took them out to Ninth Street and encouraged them to go to restaurants and ask if they could just have one item for free and see what happened. I figured that everyone would get rejected and that was the goal, was to experience that it was okay and failing wasn’t the end of the world.”

To his surprise, almost every one of Dinin’s students managed to come back with one free item. The next year, Dinin was asked to develop and teach an Innovation and Entrepreneurship elective class called Learning To Fail, and the class in its present iteration was born.

Since then, it has come to mean many different things to a variety of students through the years. To senior Sophia Parvizi-Wayne, who took the class as a junior, it was a way to overcome the personal struggle she often felt with failure, both as a student and as an athlete.

“As an athlete, we’re meant to be learning to win,” Parvizi-Wayne said. “It’s a tough thing to fail. Learning that failure can be productive is something that’s really hard to grapple with, especially at Duke, with all the athletic and academic perfection.”

In the end, however, Parvizi-Wayne said the class was about much more than just failure.

“A lot of this class was about learning ways to approach people, and honestly, learning to be a better human,” Parvizi-Wayne said. “I really think I came out of this class with a better outlook on life. I get rejected all the time from jobs and it’s not rejection; it just wasn’t for me. And that’s one of the benefits of this class—it’s not just about learning how to fail, it’s learning how to move on from that failure.”

Zhao echoed similar sentiments about applying the lessons learned in class to her personal life.

“In one class, [Dinin and Gould] gave us all flashcards, and asked us to write about a moment when we felt vulnerable and what it felt like, and then what it felt like when others showed vulnerability,” Zhao said. “To us, vulnerability feels like weakness, but when other people are being vulnerable, it feels like strength. That was something pretty eye-opening.”

One of the final challenges presented in Learning to Fail is a “create-your-own” personal challenge. Zhao took a reflective route, using the opportunity to get closer to two people she knew by asking them “The 36 Questions that Lead to Love,” coined by psychologist Arthur Aron, and contemplating her own experiences in relation to others’. 

Parvizi-Wayne, determined to solve a problem on campus, took on a project in which she created a map of every facility on campus where students could seek out mental health resources, whether that be recreational, physical, psychological or wellness-related, and then turned that information into a digital application.

These individual learning experiences are part of what make Learning to Fail so special in the eyes of its students. According to Gould, she would like to see students take away from the class whatever they need.

“We have students come to us and say, ‘I feel braver now’ or ‘I feel more mindful of my surroundings’ or ‘I feel more resilient’,” Gould said. “If there’s self-discovery, then [students] also have the courage to apply that [to their lives].”

Learning to Fail is offered every semester, and is open to students of all grade levels, regardless of previous experience with the Innovation and Entrepreneurship certificate.

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