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

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage