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!