‍Why learning from failure is critical in our work as change makers to create the world we want

Why learning

from failure

is critical in our work

as change makers

to create the

world we want

By Erin Roberts and Kehinde Balogun
09 / 02 / 2023
New growth following a wildfire during the 2020 "Black Summer" in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia. Photo credit: Jack Bass via Unsplash

"It's only when you risk failure that you discover things. When you play it safe, you're not expressing the utmost of your human experience." 

Lupita Nyong'o 

“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

"Life is a journey and a struggle. We cannot control it, but we can make the best of any situation." 

Wangari Maathai

Like every human alive today, we made a lot of mistakes last year and in all our previous years on planet Earth.  In the early days of this year, we have taken advantage of the opportunities to sit with our failures and give them space to be heard. Giving our failures a voice has ultimately transformed the way we live and work. Erin wrote about some of the lessons she learned from her mistakes in a previous blog. The takeaway is that given the sheer number of mistakes she made last year, there were a lot of lessons to learn. And that’s been kind of awesome. Because when we are able to separate who we are from the mistakes we make, we can see and take advantage of new opportunities. 

In this blog we posit as many have done before us that loss and damage itself is a failure of the collective effort to address climate change. We must take the lessons from the manifestation of climate change to transform our societies and systems. The key word here is “our” system. We have inherited a capitalist system that is fundamentally unsustainable and unequal. We have a responsibility to change that story; and create a new reality. That calls for innovation, both social and technological, which will require taking risks and trying new things. Learning lessons quickly from our inevitable failures will help us transform faster and by doing so, will enable us to reduce and avoid future loss and damage. 

Loss and Damage: The ultimate failure 

As we’ve articulated above, the very manifestation of loss and damage and the fact that Loss and Damage has arisen under the UNFCCC at all is evidence of a massive failure of the global climate regime to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change - the ultimate objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (Roberts and Pelling, 2019). Indeed, as Jackson et al. (2022) wrote in an explainer piece on non-economic loss and damage (NELD) developed by experts from the Loss and Damage Collaboration, loss and damage is a result of the:

abject failure of countries, particularly in the Global North, to stabilise their greenhouse gas emissions and enable sufficient and effective adaptation financing (Jackson et al., 2022). 

Loss and damage results from what the dominant narrative holds up as “success” - wealth and privilege - the accumulation of which exacerbates inequalities both between the global North and global South as well as within countries in the global South. 

As we’ve acknowledged above, the UNFCCC was created precisely to avoid loss and damage. However, anticipating the potential for failure even then, in 1991 Vanuatu on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), proposed that the convention on climate change being negotiated include a global risk pool to compensate small island developing states for the future (at least then) impacts of sea level rise. Yet, instead a lack of action to avoid and reduce loss and damage has gotten us where we are today: needing to mobilize trillions of dollars to address loss and damage. 

Instead of seeing climate change as an opportunity to transform our societies to realize the type of systems change and leadership that would end centuries of colonialism, what did leaders do? Well… nothing, but point fingers at one another (when those fingers weren’t in their ears) rather than take responsibility and decisive action. And that has exacted a massive cost and toll on vulnerable developing countries and the people and communities on the frontlines of climate change within them (Walsh and Ormond-Skeaping, 2022). So, what are we gonna do about it? 

Re-thinking success

Firstly, our definition of success needs a massive re-think. The current understanding of success is based on centuries old thinking and a legacy of colonialism which gave rise to the current capitalist system that created climate change (Abimbola et al., 2020). This system was enabled then and is sustained now through the accumulation of wealth gained through unapologetic consumption of resources and created an illusory separation of humans from their inherent connection to the natural environment (Balogun et al., 2023). In today’s world when we talk about “success” we often mean the accumulation of great financial wealth which allows lavish lifestyles sustained by the burning of fossil fuels, industrial agriculture, soil degradation - all of which exacerbate inequality.

Conversely, those that protect and sustain human lives and the environment that sustains us,  such as organic small-holder farmers, nurses, social workers - among many other critical livelihoods - are underpaid and overwhelmed.  We don't have to tell you that there is obviously something wrong with this perception and the market system that created it. Like a Nigerian proverb says:  

When the roots of a tree begin to decay, it spreads death to the branches. 

We propose turning the dominant narrative of success on its head and re-defining success as making positive contributors to society. Our heroes should be people like Jasilyn Charger, a young Indigenous woman from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. In response to a mental health crisis amongst youth in her community, she co-founded the One Mind Youth Movement which helps Indigenous youth connect with one another. According to its website: 

It is a common belief among our people that the children literally are the future. They are the sacred seeds of our ancestors, inherently instilled with the values passed down through generations. We have to water them and they will blossom into the sacred flowers of life they are.

To us this is success. Other heroes include Wai Wai Nu of Myanmar, a young Rohingan woman who after she was imprisoned with her family for seven years with no justification, established the Inclusive Futures Foundation which provides education for ethnic minorities in Myanmar, including Rohinga refugees living in Bangladesh and promotes peace building. These are just two of the many examples of people who are changing the world for the better. There are millions more examples we won’t hear about because their stories don’t make it onto the world wide web. 

Defining success on Loss and Damage: Creating the world we want

Before we get into the importance of failure we first must define what success looks like in our work on Loss and Damage. Sure, we need to mobilize trillions to meet the scale of the needs. We need to make sure that support. which captures not just finance but also capacity and technology, gets to where it is needed most. We need to develop and deploy tools to address loss and damage - both economic and non-economic in nature alongside those to avoid and reduce loss and damage. But is that all? 

The North Star we are working towards in the Loss and Damage Collaboration is to ensure that every human on planet Earth has the tools and resources they need to thrive. What does that look like? Close your eyes for a moment. What do you see in your mind’s eye when you imagine the world you want?  What if it was possible? What if there are no limits? 

For us the world we want is one in which human societies and ecosystems are thriving. The world we want is one in which all humans are physically, emotionally, socially, culturally and mentally well; one in which well-being is considered to be the ultimate success. The world we want is one in which Indigenous values are everyone’s values and we all recognize our connection to one another and to the natural world. It is a world where the present generation does not selfishly consume all resources of the future generation. Does that sound utopian to you? Well, this is the success story beyond Loss and Damage. And it’s completely possible in our view, if we expand [y]our understanding of the world to include Indigenous worldviews. 

However, achieving that world does require a complete shift. It requires transformation. It requires systems change.  It requires intellectual humility. It requires adopting Indigenous values. It requires not just talking about transformation but making it happen. It requires prioritizing social, cultural, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being above profit. It requires real leadership and countries which work together for healthy and resilient people within the planet. 

Failure as a precursor to making bigger change in the world  

Before we go deeper into how we can learn from failure we first want to linger a little – bask if you will – on why failure is an essential element of achieving any mission, but particularly in our work on Loss and Damage. In their paper on Learning from Failure, economists Philip Coehlo and James McClure argue that “without failure there is no success” (Coehlo, and McClure. 2005).  Researcher Dashun Wang of Northwestern University who has conducted several large studies with the aim of predicting both failure and success argued that, “failure is an essential prerequisite of success” but only if one learns from it (Ariel, 2023). Indeed, a common theme in the lives of  those many would call “successful” or “great" is that they have failed often and, in many cases, spectacularly and attributed that failure for their success. In his book Born A Crime: Tales from a South African Childhood, comedian Trevor Noah wrote: 

We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.

Noah was born at a time when apartheid was still alive and well in South Africa. In his own fight against apartheid decades earlier, fellow South African Nelson Mandela had many setbacks in his life including being imprisoned for 27 years. He famously said: 

Do not judge me for my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again. 

Mandela also learned from his failures and had a growth mindset, declaring: “I never lose. I either win or I learn”.  

Many of the change makers alive today attribute failure with propelling them to greatness including many entrepreneurs, innovators and disruptors of business as usual -  qualities we need in order to mobilize finance at the scale of the needs to address loss and damage. Each time life knocked these individuals down, they got back up, dusted themselves off and moved forward, forever changed by the lessons learned from what we would call “failure”. And they got better. But not just better. Over time they got excellent. Because they used failure as a springboard which, combined with hard work, because make no mistake, learning from failure is hard work, allowing them to go further and faster than they previously would have been able to. 

In her article Why learning from failure is the key to your success Madeline Miles argues that learning from failure helps cultivate mental toughness and resilience (which are also precursors to learning from failure).  As Ernest Hemingway so eloquently put it, “[t]he world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” But you only get stronger if you take advantage of the lessons that failing presents  – and that requires a paradigm shift to re-frame how we see failure. 

Re-framing failure 

 In order to learn from failure, we need to see it as a teacher and that requires a re-think of how we frame failure in our own minds, within our organizations and in our societies. While failure has gotten a makeover recently, many of us continue to have negative associations with the concept. Everyone wants to succeed. Nobody wants to fail. Yet, it is impossible to succeed without failing.  They are two opposites of the same spectrum.  Unfortunately, many of us have been brought up to think failure is bad, especially through the current neoliberal idea of failure and success now entrenched in education systems and societies. But if you look at traditional wisdom around the world, failing is a part of life and an opportunity to expand and stretch to achieve what was previously thought impossible. In a recent article on failure Roshana Ariel wrote that failure can also be fun and is a “one of the most enjoyable parts of the journey” to success (Ariel, 2023). 

However, we still need to get beyond our negative perceptions of failure to see it as part of a well lived life. In her paper entitled Strategies for Learning from Failure in Harvard Business Review professor Amy Edmondson makes a compelling case for reframing failure, arguing that: 

small process failures are inevitable. To consider them bad is not just a misunderstanding of how complex systems work; it is counterproductive. Avoiding consequential failures means rapidly identifying and correcting small failures (Edmonson, 2011). 

 At the end of the day failure means you are trying new things and if you’re not failing, you’re not really living. To live a full life you have to have courage to fail.  If we could all revel in failure our lives would transform and we would have the courage to fundamentally transform the lives of others. Martin Luther King, Jr. who earned the Nobel Prize for his nonviolent resistance to achieve equal rights for Black Americans said: 

The ultimate measure of a [person] is not where [they] stand in moments of convenience and comfort, but where [they] stand at times of challenge and controversy.

This is a profound turning in what we think failure and success is. It reminds us that we will fail again when we dare to dream big. Because that is part of the human experience but each time we do, we can fail better by learning from previous mistakes. 

Understanding failure 

Before we learn from failure,  we must first understand how we have failed and that requires understanding the different types of failure. Edmondson maintains that failures or mistakes generally fall into three categories: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent (Edmondson, 2011). 

Preventable failures are fairly self-explanatory in that they could have been avoided quite easily. If these types of failures are occurring with regularity then there is something wrong with the system or someone might just be overwhelmed. We made preventable failures quite frequently last year in the midst of extreme overwhelm. 

One example among many is a standing call Erin organizes weekly with the group of young negotiators she worked with. Each week there seemed to be something wrong with the Zoom link and she would spend the five minutes preceding the call hastily creating another Zoom link. She would make a mental note to herself to correct the issue after the call, but invariably the time for her next call would come and the issue would be forgotten until the following week when the unmitigated chaos would again ensue just before the call was meant to commence causing unnecessary stress both for herself and for her colleagues. This year she has committed to take more responsibility for her workload and not to take on so much work that she is overwhelmed and cannot do simple tasks well. If we would all slow down, be more mindful, do less but do it better – we would make far fewer mistakes. That’s one of our lessons from last year and one we both plan to prioritize. 

Unavoidable failures in complex systems occur in uncertain situations with combinations of issues, actors, systems among other variables that have not occurred before. Edmonson maintains that while significant failures can be avoided by understanding best practices and ensuring systems are in place to analyze issues as they occur, some failures are inevitable in new situations. In our work on Loss and Damage we are constantly navigating new territory, particularly in the wake of COP 27 with the establishment of a new fund. 

Convening regular conversations about what is going well and what could be better will help us navigate this new territory and chart a path forwards. Sharing those lessons is critical for ensuring we can learn from the failures of each other and avoid common pitfalls. Deep listening, reflecting and learning is critical to addressing loss and damage, as it allows us to “see the forest from the tree”, as it were. A broader and alternative perspective of the problem also broadens the mind to the possibilities and creation of innovative solutions.

The last type of failure Edmondson identifies is intelligent failure at the frontier. This type of failure occurs when experimentation or innovation is necessary because new ground is being broken (i.e. something hasn’t been done before). Experimentation done right can produce results quicker through intelligent failure. This might entail developing pilot projects to test new ideas more efficiently. Being on the frontier is very familiar territory to those of us working on Loss and Damage. We need to be more courageous, to take more risks, try new things and learn from innovation (both social and technological).  

Optimizing learning from failure 

While failure is inevitable, learning from it is unfortunately not and without learning from our mistakes we will continue to repeat them. Researchers Laura Ekreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach remind us of the complexity of learning from failure in their paper You Think Failure Is Hard? So Is Learning From It. If you can’t access the paper it is very well summarized in an article by Noam Shpancer. 

In their paper Ekreis-Winkler and Fishbach argue that there are two primary reasons why people and organizations fail to learn from failure. The first reason is emotional. Humans tend to want to feel good about themselves and as such do not want to contemplate failure. We argue that if people don’t cultivate self-love or inner wellbeing, they are not able to show up as the best versions of themselves for others. And they are more likely to confuse their mistakes with who they are, sending them down a shame spiral. So, in order to avoid all that we avoid thinking about our failures. In his article The smart way to learn from failure, David Robson calls this the “ostrich effect”. 

The second type of failure is cognitive in nature and reflects a confirmation bias whereby humans tend to seek out information that aligns with their belief systems. Again, we don’t want to contemplate failure. Another cognitive reason for not learning from failure according to Ekreis-Winkler and Fishbach is because it’s difficult and requires a lot of self-reflection, both as individuals and as organizations. Unfortunately, both increase mental discomfort and limit the creative capabilities of the human mind over time.

A strategy for overcoming cognitive barriers is to allow others  to do what Shparcer calls the “heavy cognitive lifting” for us by demonstrating the lessons in particular failures and providing information that will help avoid similar mistakes in the future. One way of doing this might be to have regular discussions to unpack failures in which team members are encouraged to reflect on their own mistakes and that of the team as a whole. The goal would be not to assign blame but rather to discuss how to learn from mistakes.  Avoiding the “blame game” is essential to learning from failure and this requires strong leadership. Edmonson argues that: 

Strong leadership can build a learning culture—one in which failures large and small are consistently reported and deeply analyzed, and opportunities to experiment are proactively sought. Executives commonly and understandably worry that taking a sympathetic stance toward failure will create an “anything goes” work environment. They should instead recognize that failure is inevitable in today’s complex work organizations (Edmonson, 2011). 

In their book Extreme Ownership former Navy Seals Jocko Willink and Leif Babin argue that leaders must take responsibility for everything that happens within the teams that they lead. When leaders take extreme ownership of failure they take the blame out of the game and allow for an intellectual exercise which encourages learning from failure. Edmonson argues that the goal should be to build a culture that makes it safe to admit and report mistakes. Certainly, leadership within organizations is essential but so is leadership across institutions to create an environment in which actors both within and across communities of practice exchange lessons learned and share failures regularly. We are quite sure that this is something the father of climate policy innovation, Saleemul Huq, has argued for on more than one occasion. This could be something that we could crowdsource if we had someone at the helm. 

As individuals each of us has a role to play in ensuring that we learn from failure. In her article Miles argues that there are five ways in which we can ensure that we learn from failure: 

1. Persist despite failures: This requires grit which is an essential element to success;

2. Adopt a growth mindset in which challenges are embraced and failure is used to learn, grow and get better; 

3. Practice inner work which can include meditation, mindfulness, journaling, walking in nature – whatever works for you; 

4. Be courageous: Doing anything new requires courage and that will require being kind to yourself and understanding that failure is inevitable. The only way not to fail is not to try; 

5. Build mental fitness within yourself and your team by promoting social connections and physical health; 

In her article Miles shares a link to a video of a four year old girl snowboarding down a hill with her dad which includes her verbal commentary along the way (and how cute is she in her dinosaur costume?). The little song she sings to herself includes the line: 

I won’t fall. Or maybe I will. But that’s okay because we all fall. 

Clearly, that little girl’s parents have cultivated an environment in which she feels like it’s safe to try new things because “we all fall”. And she’s a pretty decent snowboarder at four years old. 

Building a culture in which learning from failure is optimized requires that we focus on what’s going well much more than reflect on what has gone less well.  In our teams we must celebrate our wins daily, weekly, monthly and yearly and congratulate each other often. Being proud of what we have accomplished and finding joy in the day to day is integral to cultivating a healthy environment and a healthy team (because the first is necessary for the second) with a collective growth mindset. From there learning from failure becomes an adventure because you know it’s an opportunity to get even better. 

What does this mean for our work on Loss and Damage

As we laid out at the start of this blog, loss and damage itself is evidence of an epic failure. The lesson we must take from loss and damage is that we need systems change, transformation and we need it now. That requires big, big shifts in how we think and how we define success in our world. We can start by really engaging with what transformation means for us and putting that into practice in our own work and in our workplaces. Recognising that we are using tools, structures and systems that exacerbate loss and damage is critical. This challenges us to decide, if we only focus on the status quo or are we ready to take more risks by seeking out new opportunities and doing things differently?

In our work on Loss and Damage, it is very easy to get identified with our roles in “saving the world” or, more accurately, “saving people” (because at the end of the day planet Earth will survive us) as we are tackling big challenges which have deeply rooted causes. Unfortunately this identity creates an environment that is not conductive reflecting deeply on what we are doing and why. This stalls progress and leads to more preventable failures. Although we are navigating new territory in some ways, a lot of what we are doing has been done before. As we work towards mobilizing trillions a year to support those on the frontlines of climate change we must learn lessons from what has and hasn’t gone well in our and other policy fora, issues and epistemic communities. 

How can we do this? Well, it’s not rocket science. Many of us identify as researchers. We need to do more research but we also need to question our identities linked to the type of research we do. With research it starts with the questions we ask. Whose questions are being answered and how? We need intellectual humility and diversity to ask questions we are not even thinking of asking. While we collectively develop a new fund on Loss and Damage under the UN climate change regime, we need to do more reflection on its root causes (and continued systemic drivers) of loss and damage. We need to reflect on the past and gather lessons from those working in other fields to make bigger change in the world. 

To promote innovation, we must cultivate environments that encourage openness to new ideas even from the most unlikely actors. This is not only about funding Loss and Damage but addressing the causes of loss and damage at their root.  There is a lot at stake in our work on Loss and Damage and it is in our best interest to learn from mistakes as quickly as possible. This will require a ‘new breed’ of leaders and leadership. To do this we should create processes and cultivate conversations for learning from failures as a community. We could do this by organizing workshops on failure, curating salons and brainstorming sessions and developing a compendium of failures that is regularly updated as failures occur and lessons arise. 

As we have been building the Loss and Damage Collaboration over the past a few years we have tried a lot of different things. Every day is learning by doing. A few of our ideas didn’t work but many of them did. That’s what happens when you build something from scratch: it’s an opportunity for innovation.  Last year we experienced a growth spurt in the Loss and Damage Collaboration that came with a lot of challenges.  There are many things that we would definitely never choose to do again. 

One of our mistakes was taking on far too much work which we will never do again. At the end of last year as they recovered from COP 27 Erin said to one of her colleagues: “Well, the good thing is that we’ve made so many mistakes this year that we’ve learned what works and what doesn’t really fast”.  It highlighted the need for more manageable workloads and for putting systems and processes in place to better coordinate as a team. Allowing space for ourselves to reflect and learn does not only help us avoid preventable mistakes and be healthier humans for friends, family and colleagues. Above all things it also allows time for reflecting, engaging with different types of actors and thus different ways of thinking and seeing the world. This will better allow us to learn from failure, see opportunities we might not otherwise have seen and surge cultivate ideas with the potential to create the world we want. Because at the end of the day, the only limitation is us holding ourselves down. 


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Ariel, R. (2023). How to Grow Through Failure. Medium [online] Available at: https://betterhumans.pub/how-to-grow-22d11a3fd88

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Walsh, L. and T. Ormond-Skeaping (2022). The Cost of Delay: Why Finance to Address Loss and Damage Must Be Agreed At COP27 Loss and Damage Collaboration [online] Available at: cost-of-delay-why-finance-to-address-loss-and-damage-must-be-agreed-at-cop27

Weinzimmer, L. and McConoughey, J. (2012). The Wisdom of Failure: How to Learn the Tough Leadership Lessons Without Paying the Price. London: Jossey-Bass. 

Willink, J. and L. Babin (2017). Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win. London: St. Martin’s Press.  

Erin Roberts is a climate policy researcher and strategist and the founder of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. She enjoyed learning from her friend and colleague Kehinde Balogun while writing this blog and credits the insights of Teo Ormond-Skeaping who has always inspired her to be and do better. She dedicates this blog to her original mentor from whom she first learned about the importance of failure, Saleemul Huq. 

Kehinde Balogun has over a decade of experience in integrated disaster and climate risk management. She has contributed to research on Loss and Damage, especially on NELD. She researches and discusses moving beyond GDP as a societal goal rather towards relational wellbeing - A systemic worldview of many Indigenous groups that sees the (mutual) symbiotic relationship of people and planet. She is also a member of the Loss and Damage Collaboration.