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

Thursday, December 7, 2017 - Friday, December 8, 2017  8:30am Cowin Auditorium, 147 Horace Mann Hall, Teacher’s College

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

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.

****Free and open to the public, registration required. – REGISTER HERE.****

This conference is supported, in part, by the John Templeton Foundation.


  • Speaker

    Sara Jane Bailes

    Reader in Theatre & Performance Studies (English)

    University of Sussex

  • Speaker

    David Kaiser

    Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, Program in Science, Technology & Society, & Professor of Physics, Department of Physics

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • Speaker

    Xiaodong Lin

    Professor of Cognitive Studies

    Teachers College, Columbia University

  • Speaker

    Mario Livio

    Professor of Astrophysics

    University of Nevada, Las Vegas

  • Speaker

    Peter Norvig

    Director of Research


  • Speaker

    Katharina Pistor

    Michael I. Sovern Professor of Law

    Columbia Law School

  • Speaker

    Scott Sandage

    Associate Professor of History

    Carnegie Mellon University

  • Speaker

    Luz Santana


    Right Question Institute

  • Speaker

    Jutta Schickore

    Professor of History of Science

    Indiana University

  • Speaker

    Chris Washburne

    Associate Professor of Music

    Columbia University


By Semester