There once was a time when failing at something was regarded as a bad thing. After all, if you failed, then it meant you didn’t do it well enough. Failure has undergone something of a transformation in recent years, however, where it has reached the point that it is almost a cool thing to have done.
The hypothesis goes that if you haven’t ever failed in something then it’s because you’re not pushing the boundaries far enough. The failure is seen as so crucial because it provides you with crucial lessons about what not to do. Essentially, by getting things wrong, you eventually will get things right.
It has taken on such a charm that bodies such as Nesta, the UK innovation charity, have been hosting events called FailureFests. They’re kind of like an AA meeting but for your failures, where people sit around and discuss what went wrong, with the hope that group learning will take place. Similarly, the likes of DARPA, the US defence body, proudly proclaim that they have a failure rate of around 90% on their projects.
Failing in the right way
All of this tends to rest on the fact that you fail in the right way. For instance, if you fail in a relatively small way, then you get the chance to learn without the failure sinking your chances right away. Does it really work that way though?
A study from the Harvard Business School looked at the venture capital market and delved into what it was that investors looked for in an entrepreneur. It seems that they overwhelmingly want an entrepreneuer that has achieved success in the past.
"Already-successful entrepreneurs were far more likely to succeed again: their success rate for later venture-backed companies was 34 percent. But entrepreneurs whose companies had been liquidated or gone bankrupt had almost the same follow-on success rate as the first-timers: 23 percent," it says.
In other words, if you’d failed in the past, it was likely you would fail again in the future. There was very little evidence that people were learning from their past mistakes.
Another study had a similarly bleak outlook, and revealed that failed entrepreneurs were both less likely to succeed with a new venture, and more likely for it to fall into liquidation than their first time peers.
Learning is important
Now, I’m not for one minute suggesting that learning isn’t crucial to your success, and of course there will be times when you fail in life. I can’t help but feel, however, that we’ve gone too far, and made failure somehow a cool thing to achieve, with much less emphasis on actually learning from your mistakes.
With failure being such an acceptable experience, are we putting as much thought and energy into our efforts in the first place? Are we working hard enough to succeed or are we taking the easy way out, safe in the knowledge that failure is deemed to be ok?
Maybe instead of accepting failure, our innovators and entrepreneurs should invoke the spirit of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador. Despite being heavily outnumbered by the enormous Aztec army, when he and his troops landed on the Mexican beaches, he ordered his ships to be burnt so that his men were well aware that failure and retreat was not an option for them.