To get a good grade in Jack Matson's class, you have to fail -- badly. That's because the goal of the course at the University of Michigan business school is to "maximize learning from failure," according to Matson. "If you are doing something innovative, you are going to trip and fumble. So the more failing you do faster, the quicker you can get to success."
In that spirit, Matson begins his course by giving each student a bunch of Popsicle sticks and telling them to make something ridiculous that will never sell. This year's class came up with such contraptions as a hurricane-strength box kite and a device that supposedly allows you to identify the sections of the brain. Matson then instructed the students to go out and peddle these things, hoping they would feel the sting of failure. Inexplicably, two-thirds of the students sold their inventions. "My exercises sometimes have to fail," the professor admits. Students also write a Failure Résumé, designed to show how their failures have shaped them, and they observe Dress for Failure Day, by coming to class in ridiculous getups, because -- says Matson -- "in taking risks, you are bound to look foolish."
Matson traces the genesis of his course back to the day six years ago when he was hit by lightning. "When I came really close to the ultimate failure, I decided that I wanted to bring out creative things inside of me." A civil-engineering teacher, he tried some new courses ("a big failure") and launched a consulting business ("a total flop"). Soon he had developed a new expertise. "Failure is my thing," he says proudly.
By the end of the semester Matson's students must actually start a business. What if they don't? "Those who fail the course can take it again," he says. "But I firmly believe it's within every student not to fail at failure."
-- Joshua Hyatt
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