The British need to learn to love failure

Something we can learn from the Yanks.

Ben Bernanke, addressing Princeton graduates last month, made the following sage observation: "Nobody likes to fail but failure is an essential part of life and of learning. If your uniform isn't dirty, you haven't been in the game."

This quote struck an immediate resonance with me. The notion of embracing failure as part of a learning curve and a vital life tool, in both a personal and business sense, is one scarcely heard on the UK side of the pond. I suspect that Princeton graduates will have already been familiar with the "fail to succeed" doctrine espoused by Bernanke, as it is taught in so many US classrooms and colleges. However Bernanke's statement, to my mind, illuminated the gulf that exists between US and UK on the critical subject of failure.  

In the US, failure is not necessarily a pejorative term denoting categorical error and misjudgement. It is not seen as stumbling block along the path of career development, rather it is viewed - as much, if not more - as an enabler rather than disabler. Failure enables learning, it creates clarity and understanding. It is not to be encouraged per se, but failure should be recognised as a natural part of existence and as something from which positive lessons can be drawn.

Clearly when failure destabilises economies profoundly or leads to terrible accidents people should be rightly held accountable. However in the business world it is fair to say that in the US people embrace the opportunity to learn from mistakes and therefore do not fear failure in the same way as their UK counterparts, who are raised to fear failure over and above all else. This culture of fear leads to a dearth in creativity, for why should one dare to do something different if there is the prospect of failure?

The issue in part stems from schools, the understandably rigorous examination system and progresses through to highly competitive, grades-tested graduate fast stream programmes and other "first job"' employment initiatives that covet "straight-A" students.

Whilst this approach is in its conception meritocratic and laudable, grades and academic 'success' does not always tell the complete story. Indeed, it might mean that some of the best candidates never get past the first stage in any recruitment process.

This is because being a straight-A student does not mean that they are perfect but merely someone who has never done badly in a course – impressive in itself, but also perhaps indicating that they have never really been tested. If they have not been tested to the extent of receiving at least some weak grades, then they are either superhumanly gifted or, I would argue, that they missed out on how to cope with failure. How to cope with failure moulds character in a way that achieving constant 'success' never can. And constant success in business is never achievable in the long term.

A final thought from Woody Allen: "If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative." Innovation is a process of trial and error – with the latter part being equally as important as the former. Clearly this process must be channelled towards the overarching aim of achieving success, but fearing error means avoiding innovation. Learning from mistakes helps to build better businesses. Of course with failure, a little goes a long way!

Ben Bernanke. Photograph: Getty Images

Co-CEO of DLA Piper

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.