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  • Andy Gold

Redefining Failure, by Chasing it

"It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed."  - Theodore Roosevelt

Reflecting on her childhood, Sara recalled that her father had an unusual routine each week at the dinner table. Her dad would ask Sara and her brother to share a story about what they had failed at that week. Her father would then celebrate their failures, and would, in fact be disappointed if his children did not have a story of failure to share. Sara recalls that her dad would “high five” and congratulate her after sharing a failure story. This mindset in turn shaped the way Sara perceived failure. Over the years, Sara began to realize that what her dad had taught her was that failure is not a result, or an outcome. As such, she began to take more action on her imaginative ideas, knowing that if things didn’t turn out as planned, her father would applaud her failure. Because of this upbringing, Sara began to redefine the meaning of failure to simply be…not trying.  It was this mindset, a strong sense of perseverance, and a host of serendipitous events that led Sara Blakely to start Spanx, and became the youngest self-made female billionaire at the age of 41.  (

Like Sara, many people have vivid imaginations, and a natural desire to make positive contributions to the world.  However, unlike Sara, many people are fearful of acting on their ideas because of how they perceive failure. Entrepreneurship and the creative process associated with it, is one vehicle that allows a person to act on their imaginative ideas.  Sir Ken Robinson, a creativity authority, defines creativity as being a form of “applied imagination”. 

I like this definition for creativity because imagination without a willingness to take action creates nothing, other than good conversation.  One must wonder why so many people like talking about their ideas, but so few ever take next steps to further investigate their ideas. While there are many anecdotal explanations for this behavior, this article focuses on the fear of failure as being one of the potential drivers for not acting. 

The problem begins in K-12 Education

Young children are wonderful at applied imagination.  Societal pressures that shame those that try and fail do not apply to very young people.  In fact, we encourage our children to open a lemonade stand, develop artistic skills, and to be imaginative and fanciful.  Over time, society begins to change the game of what is expected from a young person.  We learn that taking chances can cause embarrassment, and that in turn causes many people to begin learning that failure should be avoided.  We learn that getting focused on an employable skill, like engineering, data analytics, science etc. is paramount to pursing creative passions.  The result is, that we are creating a large group of young people that are highly educated and relatively unwilling to take chances. 

The difficulty with this scenario is that not everyone can be an engineer, or a mathematician, or a scientist, but we are asking, in fact demanding this of many children.  This creates a significant problem that may be contributing toward stifling innovation.  As many young people track through their education careers, they are nudged from their natural talents and passions, toward academics deemed to be critical for professional success, and, academic disengagement ensues.  The result is that many teenagers and young adults lose their creative spirit, become reticent to act, and develop a deep fear of failure.  All of these elements stifle innovation and instills a general misunderstanding of what entrepreneurship and innovation actually mean.

Furthermore, many activities that once allowed some K-12 students to apply what they were learning in classes to practice (i.e. shop class, dance, art, music) have largely been stripped away from many schools, or at a minimum degraded.  Affluent families are able to provide these activities as a supplement to school by paying for gymnastics, dance, music, and other activities.  But what about less fortunate families that lack the financial means to provide this supplement?  A recent study conducted by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and the U.S. Treasury Department - finds that “children born into the top 1 percent of households by income are 10 times as likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families.”

The result is that we are generating an extremely educated population of students that know an immense amount of facts, but hesitant to give things a go.  Tony Wagner, an education thought leader, encapsulated the problem with this trend when he said, “Today, knowledge is free.  It's like air; it's like water... There's no competitive advantage to knowing more than the person next to you.  The world doesn't care what you know.  What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know.”

Developing An Entrepreneurial Mindset May Be The First Step Forward So, how do we train young people to apply what they know? Entrepreneurial activities are one vehicle that enables people to apply not only their imaginations, but also other critical academic skills and subjects, like critical thinking, writing, communicating, engineering, science, finance, and mathematics.  The problem is that experiential learning is more difficult to measure on a standardized test.  We can begin by saying that most people think of entrepreneurship as having something to do with starting a business.  While this is partially true, this is a far too narrow framing for what entrepreneurship actually has become. 

Compounding this narrow definition is a further narrowing of entrepreneurship primarily among academics, some of which differentiate between a small business enterprise (local business) and an entrepreneurial venture (high growth, scalable venture). Of course, the high growth scalable startups are where most of the attention goes.  Entrepreneurship above all else is a mindset; a way of thinking, or a certain set of conventions that promotes action.  These actions are designed to promote learning and solution searching, coupled with innovations that can add value.  This action oriented mindset is accompanied by a series of intangible skills such having an internal locus of control, a growth mindset, strong sense of self-efficacy, perseverance, adaptability, ability to think big, creativity, resourcefulness, ability to understand and cope with failure in a different light, and problem finding, to name a few. 

All of these skills are certainly important for a person desiring to start a business, whether it is a small business or high growth entity.  But these skills can also be applied to a person who wants to work for, and transform an existing business, or an educator who wants to shape the future for education, or a doctor that wants to develop innovative patient practices, and so on.  In fact, developing an entrepreneurial way of thinking can help in so many varied ways.  It can help a student excel in school, a municipal worker to develop efficiencies within their scope of work, assist a nonprofit to identify innovative revenue streams, and even change the way government operates.  By limiting a young person from experiencing failure, we are blocking a person from learning how to deal with failing, which serves to stifle innovation over time. 

A Changing Landscape for New Business Formation

New business venturing is certainly the most common association people have with entrepreneurship.  However, a paradox of sorts exists.  While it is easier today than ever to start a business, (lots of free tools, tons of resources, wide

range of entrepreneurship academic programs and curriculum, abundant entrepreneurial ecosystems etc.), the data reveals that new business formation, has been on the decline for nearly 35 years. 

While we cannot say there is any causality here, nor even a statistical correlation, the fact remains that while access to these resources has increased over the past three decades, new business formation has decreased.  There have been many explanations advanced to help explain this paradox. 

Possible Causes for Declining New Business Formation

One such explanation for declining new business formation activity may be that Americans are simply becoming more risk averse.  A culmination of factors may be contributing to this risk aversion, such as, personal financial mismanagement, humongous levels of student loan debt, increased economic volatility, stagnant wage growth resulting in the need to work more hours per week (which results in time scarcity), and increased regulations that make it more challenging to start and operate a business.  

Another large and well-known contributor to this problem (discussed briefly above) has been the crushing blow delivered to young people progressing through the k-12 education system, where creativity is absolutely squeezed out of children as they progress from one grade to the next.  Gallup research provides an illustration of this troublesome problem by measuring the degree of student engagement in school.  Peaking somewhere around 4th grade, student engagement rapidly declines (rising disengagement in school) all the way through the completion of high school.

Why?  Well, one factor may be that as students progress through their education, they are discouraged from engaging in activities that are perceived to have no economic value (typically creative projects and endeavors) while at the same time encouraged to pursue activities that promote knowledge accumulation in employable disciplines such as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  All children are naturally creative and inquisitive at a young age.  But once that creativity is either demonized, and or discouraged, student disengagement kicks in.  As Sir Ken Robinson says, we do not grow into creativity, but rather we grow out of it, and the school system is part of that process. 

This process continues to a certain extent in college as well.  It turns out that it costs money to formally educate people.  Today, funding for education is largely based upon performance based measures such as standardized testing.  In college, performance based funding is based upon the number of students served, while other funding is based upon academic completions.  In other words, let's move children through the k-12 system performing well on standardized tests, so they can get into college, complete college quickly and enter the workforce.

The Soft Skills Gap Adds to The Problem

Despite a shift over the past 30 years in education toward fact based learning, which leads to teaching to the test, and measurable performance standards in academic STEM disciplines, employers consistently report that college graduates lack the requisite skills needed in a 21st century workforce. What our education system appears to be accomplishing is rapid production of incredibly educated, and highly disengaged individuals.   Worse yet, there appears to be a disconnection between the education system and the workplace.

Our education system thinks that what employers desire, are highly educated individuals that know a lot of facts about specific topics. Employers say that knowing a lot of facts is a relatively useless skill given our tech based “google it” “you tube it” culture. As Tony Wagner points out, what matters to employers is not how much you know, but whether you know how to apply what you know to meaningful value-added work. Because students are not learning how to fail, are not encouraged to fail, are not celebrated for giving things a go, and are in fact ostracized for failing they are becoming less prepared to add value in their work, and thus less capable of innovating. Without people willing to chase failure in the workplace, the workplace will become less innovative, and the serious problem of hyper disengagement among our workforce will only get worse.

Chasing Innovation or Failure

Failure comes in various forms, such as mini failures, or mistakes all the way up to catastrophic failures. Failure of some kind in life is inevitable. When you ask the average person what they would rather do; chase innovation, or chase failure. Most would say chase innovation. After all, how unpleasant would it be to spend time chasing failure? But, as innovators know, there is no innovation without failure. Failure must come first, and must occur rapidly and frequently for innovation to accelerate. Failure is how we learn.  However, despite all the cliches being taught in business schools; “fail fast, learn faster”, “the bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity” etc. most people, understandably so, do not aspire to fail. In fact, most people suffer from loss aversion, and as such go to great lengths to avoid placing themselves in situations where they could fail. So how do we get people to chase failure, so that innovation can speed up?

Developing a New Culture that Truly Embraces Innovation Requires Redefining Failure

Perhaps, understanding failure in a different light, or redefining what failure is, may help to accelerate innovation.  To promote innovation, the goal in school and the workplace should be to create a culture where failure is applauded and rewarded, not demonized. As was the case with Sara Blakely, if people felt inspired to try new things without fear of ridicule, knowing that whether they failed or succeeded, they would receive positive recognition for their efforts, this would make the pursuit of failure the path of least resistance.

Fear of failure can do only two things to us. Stop us from starting, or stop us from stopping. The thought process being, if you never act on the unknown you will be insulated from failure. On the other hand, the concept of loss aversion informs us that if you are brave enough to try and act on something, and it does not work out, it is better to keep working on a failed project than admit that you have failed to avoid facing the perceived shame that comes along with failure.

To address this problem, dramatic transformation in the education system and workplace needs to occur, so that people think of, and define failure in a more constructive light. This will need to be threaded into our school system, family life, business culture, governmental policies, and so forth.  Astro Teller from Google X, says:

“We work hard at X to make it safe to fail. Teams kill their ideas as soon  as the evidence is on the table because they're rewarded for it. They get applause from their peers. Hugs and high fives from their manager... They get promoted for it. We [provide bonuses] to every single person on teams that ended their projects, from teams as small        as two to teams of more than 30.  We believe in dreams at the moonshot factory.                     But enthusiastic skepticism is not the enemy of boundless  optimism. It's optimism's perfect partner. It unlocks the potential in every idea.”

In this light, failure can be redefined to be the moment when you realize what you are working on does not, and will not work, and yet you continue to work on that thing. That is true failure.  All the steps that led up to that moment where you realize what you have been working on is flawed, is simply learning.

These examples of redefining failure may help encourage more people to try. With this new way of framing failure, people may be more willing to act on their imaginative ideas, because if they end their project at the moment they know it is flawed, they can never fail. This redefinition for failure is the first step in making chasing failure the path of least resistance.  

This approach is not easy because there is no specific guideline for how much someone should continue trying to make something work? Three variations of the original idea?  Ten iterations? Teller says, the answer to this question must be left up to those working on it. They need to have ownership over their decision making. Identifying the moment when you should end the project is difficult to say the least. 

A second and equally crucial step in developing a culture that promotes chasing failure is to encourage and train people willing to act on an idea, to first go after the biggest and most critical assumptions they have about their idea. The Lean Startup method has helped immensely on this front, by teaching people to apply the scientific method of hypothesis testing the most challenging assumptions first. This creates enormous efficiencies. By ending a project faster, because you went after the biggest questions first, and found that your idea was not feasible, allows us to learn quicker, while at the same time preserve resources that can be allocated toward a new idea.

Another critical building block for creating a culture that supports chasing failure, is to ensure that we put in place frameworks for fast feedback loops so that we learn quickly.  The faster we can act, learn and iterate, the faster our ideas can reach the pre-failure realization moment that the project/business is not feasible, and stop before we truly failing.

There are many ways of accomplishing this task. One innovative exercise is called a pre-mortem, pre-death, aka pre-failure.  How this activity works is you share your idea with a team. You then imagine that you were able to act on this idea and launch the new program, product, service, business etc. Then ask the team to imagine that six months have past, and the project has failed. The next step involves asking the team to tell you all the reasons why the project hypothetically failed (write everything down). Lastly, talk with the team about what steps you could take today to mitigate those failure forces that the team came up with. This activity will not only provide you with a risk-free way to think about your business in a failure mindset, but to also be able to identify those biggest failure factors early on, and to then go out and find out if those variables would cause your idea to die.

Why Don’t We Applaud Failure the Way We Applaud Success? Finally, perhaps the biggest cultural change that needs to occur to truly encourage people to think big, act, and chase failure, is the need for organizations, educators, employers, government agencies etc. to begin building a culture that not only rewards those that chased failure, but to applaud those that try and “pre-fail”. Our societal norms are such that we have a tendency to applaud success, but what we really need to get much better at, is learning to passionately applaud failure.  If we do not do this, more people will stop trying, which, as Sara Blakely says is the real definition of failure.  If more people stop trying than true innovation will be stifled for generations to come.

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