Understanding the Idiom: "fail upwards" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English

In today’s fast-paced world, success is often measured by how quickly one can climb the corporate ladder. However, sometimes things don’t go as planned and individuals may experience setbacks or failures in their careers. This is where the idiom “fail upwards” comes into play.

The term “fail upwards” refers to a situation where an individual fails at a task or job but is still promoted or given more responsibility despite their lack of success. This may seem counterintuitive, but it can happen for various reasons such as a shortage of qualified candidates or a desire to retain talented employees.

What does it mean to fail upwards?

To understand the concept of failing upwards, it’s important to first define what failure means in this context. Failure doesn’t necessarily refer to incompetence or lack of effort; rather, it’s about not achieving the desired outcome despite one’s best efforts.

When someone fails upwards, they are essentially being rewarded for their potential rather than their past performance. This can be seen as a form of risk-taking by employers who believe that giving someone another chance could lead to better results in the future.

The pros and cons of failing upwards

As with any situation, there are both advantages and disadvantages to failing upwards. On one hand, it can provide individuals with valuable opportunities for growth and development that they may not have otherwise had access to.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “Fail Upwards”

The phrase “fail upwards” has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially in the business world. It is often used to describe a situation where someone experiences repeated failures but still manages to advance their career or position within an organization. However, the origins of this idiom are not entirely clear.

Some suggest that the term may have originated from military jargon, where officers who failed in their duties were often promoted to higher ranks as a way of getting them out of harm’s way. Others believe that it may have come from sports, where coaches sometimes promote struggling players to more challenging positions in order to motivate them and help them improve.

Regardless of its origins, the concept behind “failing upwards” has been around for centuries. In ancient Rome, for example, politicians who failed at one office were often given another chance at a different position rather than being completely ousted from politics altogether.

Today, many people view “failing upwards” as a negative trend that rewards incompetence and undermines meritocracy. However, others argue that it can be beneficial in certain situations by providing opportunities for growth and development even after setbacks or failures.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “fail upwards”

The idiom “fail upwards” has become increasingly popular in recent years, particularly in business and political circles. It refers to the phenomenon where individuals who fail at one level are promoted to a higher position rather than being held accountable for their mistakes. This can be seen as a form of reward for failure, which is often criticized as being counterproductive.

Despite its negative connotations, the idiom “fail upwards” has been used in various contexts to describe different situations. Some have used it to refer to cases where individuals who lack experience or qualifications are given high-level positions based on connections or other factors unrelated to their abilities. Others have used it more broadly to describe any situation where incompetence is rewarded with promotion.

One variation of this idiom is “failing forward,” which suggests that failure can be a positive learning experience that leads to growth and development. This idea is often associated with Silicon Valley culture, where entrepreneurs are encouraged to take risks and learn from their failures.

Another variation is “failing fast,” which emphasizes the importance of quickly identifying and addressing problems before they escalate into larger issues. This approach encourages experimentation and iteration, but also requires a willingness to admit mistakes and make changes when necessary.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “fail upwards”


There are several synonyms that can be used in place of “fail upwards.” One such synonym is “rise without merit,” which implies that someone has achieved success despite not having earned it through hard work or talent. Another synonym is “succeed by failing,” which suggests that someone has managed to turn their failures into opportunities for growth and advancement.


The opposite of “failing upwards” would be to fail downwards or simply fail without any upward mobility. When someone fails downwards, they experience a setback or loss that negatively impacts their career prospects or personal goals. In contrast, when someone fails upwards, they may experience setbacks but still manage to advance in their career or achieve success despite those setbacks.

It’s important to note that while these antonyms provide a contrast to the concept of failing upwards, they do not necessarily imply failure as a negative outcome. Failure can often lead to valuable lessons learned and new opportunities for growth.

Cultural Insights:

The idea of failing upwards is often associated with corporate culture where individuals who have failed at one job are promoted to higher positions rather than being let go. This practice can be seen as rewarding failure instead of punishing it and can lead to resentment among employees who feel like they are being passed over for promotions despite their hard work and dedication.

However, there are also cultural contexts where failing upwards is viewed more positively. In the startup world, for example, entrepreneurs who have failed at one venture are often seen as more experienced and better equipped to succeed in their next endeavor. This is because failure is viewed as a necessary step towards success and can provide valuable lessons learned.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “Fail Upwards”

In order to fully grasp the meaning of the idiom “fail upwards”, it is important to practice using it in different contexts. Here are some practical exercises that can help you understand and use this idiom effectively:

  • Write a short story or anecdote where someone experiences failure but ends up succeeding in the end. Use the phrase “fail upwards” to describe their journey.
  • Think of a time when you failed at something but learned valuable lessons from that experience. Write a reflection on how you “failed upwards” and what you gained from that failure.
  • Create a list of successful people who have experienced setbacks or failures before achieving success. Use examples like J.K Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, or Steve Jobs and explain how they “failed upwards”.
  • Watch a TED talk or read an article about resilience and overcoming obstacles. Identify instances where the speaker uses phrases similar to “failing upwards” and discuss with others how these concepts relate to each other.

By practicing these exercises, you will become more comfortable using the idiom “fail upwards” in various situations. You will also gain a deeper understanding of its meaning and be able to apply it in your own life experiences. Remember, failure is not always negative – sometimes it can lead us towards greater success!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “Fail Upwards”

When it comes to using idioms, it’s important to understand their meaning and usage in context. The idiom “fail upwards” is no exception. This phrase refers to a situation where someone fails at one job or task, but is then promoted or given another opportunity at a higher level.

However, there are some common mistakes that people make when using this idiom. One mistake is assuming that failing upwards always leads to success. While it may work out for some individuals, others may continue to struggle and fail in their new position.

Another mistake is using the idiom as an excuse for incompetence or lack of effort. Failing upwards should not be seen as a way to avoid responsibility or accountability for one’s actions.

It’s also important to recognize that failing upwards can have negative consequences on those around you. If someone is promoted despite their failures, it can lead to resentment from coworkers who feel they deserved the opportunity more.

To avoid these mistakes, it’s crucial to use the idiom “fail upwards” with caution and understanding of its implications. It should not be used as a justification for poor performance or as a means of avoiding accountability. Instead, it should be viewed as an opportunity for growth and learning from past mistakes.

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