Learn to Fail Successfully, BYU President Tells Students

Contributed By Valerie Johnson, Church News staff writer

  • 13 January 2015

President Kevin J Worthen speaks to students at a Brigham Young University campus devotional on successfully failing.  Photo by Mark A. Philbrick, BYU.

Article Highlights

  • Make goals that will allow you to achieve your potential.
  • Learn from mistakes and failures, as they provide experience needed to grow.

“We will all fail. More than once. Every day. My plea for you today is to learn how to fail successfully.” —President Kevin J Worthen, president of BYU

“Failing is an essential part of the mortal phase of our quest for perfection. … How we respond when we fail will ultimately determine how well we will succeed,” said President Kevin J Worthen at a campus devotional at Brigham Young University on January 6.

In their first campus devotional, President Worthen and his wife, Sister Peggy Worthen, focused on the need for worthy goals and how to react when obstacles appear or failures happen.

“Goals are a significant part of our lives,” Sister Worthen said. “Goals help us to keep focused. Goals help us to plan for and attain the things that are important to us.”

In setting goals, individuals need to keep three things in mind. “First, we should ask ourselves, ‘Will this goal help us achieve our own full divine potential?’” Our goals need to be in harmony with Heavenly Father’s plan for each of us.

Second, individuals should use their patriarchal blessing to guide them in making those goals. One goal that Sister Worthen set for herself after reading her patriarchal blessing was to not shy away from teaching or speaking assignments despite her fears of doing so. “I am still apprehensive about teaching a lesson or giving a talk, especially in a place as big as the Marriott Center, but I know that it is something Heavenly Father wants me to do, so I have faith that if I try, He will help me.”

The third consideration is to learn to adjust to changes. “One thing I have learned is that there is no such thing as an uninterrupted pathway to the goals we make.”

Nephi was one whose route was not a straight course. “Because of his obedience and great faith, Nephi did not panic or fear the detours. He was able to be flexible and adjust to the changes that occurred. He was also very willing to learn new things along the way—even things that may have seemed impossible—such as building an “exceedingly fine” ship that would carry his family to the land of promise,” said Sister Worthen.

President Worthen related how unexpected failures served to teach Nephi an important lesson. Nephi, with his brothers, was given the task of recovering the brass plates from Laban, but he didn’t manage to succeed until his third attempt. When he persisted, “he discovered the power of being ‘led by the Spirit,’ a critical lesson that he may not have learned if the first effort to persuade Laban to release the plates had been successful. Nephi’s life was forever changed in a positive way because he failed twice—and more importantly, because of the way he responded to those failures. …

“We will all fail. More than once. Every day,” President Worthen said. “My plea for you today is to learn how to fail successfully.”

President Kevin J Worthen and his wife, Sister Peggy Worthen. Photo by Mark A. Philbrick, BYU.

Sister Peggy Worthen speaks to students at a campus devotional at Brigham Young University on the importance of setting goals. Photo by Mark A. Philbrick, BYU.

By relying on God, He will turn failures into successes. The Atonement can make up for mistakes and failures. Photo by Mark A. Philbrick, BYU.

The purpose of mortality is to help individuals become like their heavenly parents. Learning these characteristics is essential to salvation. The scriptures teach that knowledge by study, faith, and experience. Experience comes through trial and failure, making failure a critical component of eternal progression.

From personal experience, President Worthen found that failure helped him become a better lawyer. Two years out of law school, he was working on a tax law case. One of the partners of the law firm told him a memo he had painstakingly created was wrong. Despite being a little offended, he worked on it again and came up with the correct solution. President Worthen asked the partner how he knew the original memo was wrong.

“It takes good judgment,” the partner replied. “Good judgment comes from experience. And experience comes from bad judgment.” In this case, bad judgment meant failure.

Some failures can be considered good. They extend the frontier of an individual’s knowledge. “Don’t let concern for protecting your grade point average dictate the courses you take,” President Worthen said. “Challenge yourself, academically and in other ways. You may discover skills, talents, and joys you would otherwise miss out on.” Mortal experience can be enriched by stretching and taking the risk of failure.

Other failures happen out of our control due to the messiness of life. In these cases, thinking like an optimist and recalling past successes can help us overcome those failures. “Remembering what you have already accomplished and understanding your full potential can contribute to the development of the kind of emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual resilience that will allow you, in the words of the BYU mission statement, to ‘meet personal challenge and change.’”

Finally, no matter what failures we experience, we all can be assured that the Atonement can make up for them. “Because of the Atonement, all failures are changeable and temporary, except the one that occurs when we give up. …

“I urge you, in your moments of doubt and despair, in the times when you think you fail and think you can’t make it right, to focus more on Him and less on yourselves.” By relying on God, He will turn all our failures into successes. “He gave His Son so that we might move forward in our quest for perfection with full confidence and assurance that we will succeed despite our failures.”