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Risk and the Virtue of Failure

Posted by on October 10, 2012

I visited my nine year old daughter’s school recently and was amazed by the technological advancements that are present in today’s classrooms.  Nothing like my elementary experience – her classroom was filled with laptops, smart boards, interactive computer assisted devices and gadgets.  Something that I couldn’t even imagine when I was nine.  I can recall with excitement the day I saw my first Atari game console.  I used to get so excited to go to my cousin’s house because he had a Commodore 64.  Things have changed dramatically since then, but in many ways they are exactly the same.

The way students are taught is still the same.  There is the stick (although these days not as much a literal one) which is generally manifest in detentions or punishments for disobedience, poor marks, failing grades for the “wrong answers” and the requisite parent teacher interview to discuss the child’s progress relative to her peers.  There is also the ever present carrot – rewards for good behaviour, good marks and positive endorsements for the “right answers”.  Generally a well behaved child may even be fortunate enough to earn a positive “label” such as smart, gifted, talented or advanced.  A poorly behaved child, particularly one who is adept at giving wrongs answers, will also earn a “label” of a different, and far more troubling kind given the phenomenon of the Pygmalion Effect.

In the most formative years of our life we are behaviourally conditioned to seek the right answers, get praise from people who are in a position to give it, and avoid inconsistency or disruption at all costs.  Failure is terrifying.  We are led to believe that failure brings with it social isolation, a lack of opportunities in life, a path of uncertainty that few would voluntarily trod.  Our pattern of socially conditioned decision making causes many of the best and the brightest of today to seek career opportunities where security and prestige (the carrots in elementary school) are the defining rewards.

There is a reason that this model perpetuates.  It is the industrial revolution factory model of education and career advancement.  There are plenty of factory vacancies out there in the world that need to be filled.  Those who run the factories in our society (the power structures) need model obedient factory workers. We are conditioned to be model and obedient from the time we are children with the carrot and the stick.  We are also conditioned to believe that there are certain avenues in life that are relatively risk free – that if we attain certain status positions for example, that we really won’t have to deal with the twins terrors of risk and failure.  Our position in the factory system will be secure, we will be able to live out the duration of our lives in peace and pleasure.

I had a conversation with a professional recently that left me saddened.  It was very clear that this individual’s heart was not in their current profession.  They wanted to pursue an entrepreneurial path however they were concerned about the risks inherent in this type of engagement.  I inquired what was keeping them in their current position – it was clearly not the day to day satisfaction of what they were doing (as they really didn’t enjoy it at all).  It wasn’t necessarily the money (despite making great money the individual wasn’t really that worldly).  On further inquiry it was the issue of risk and the possibility of failure.  This individual saw their current path as secure, and one where a base professional competency would allow them to never have to deal with failure.

I asked this individual why they thought their path was secure.  Their answer was because they felt they had met the base level of competency for their profession and the odds of making a material, catastrophic, career impacting error was minimal at this point.  My next question got them thinking however.  I said well what is the purpose of work?  They had a little more trouble with this one.  Their answer was part altruistic (provide value to society) and part temporal (save for retirement, legacy build for family, material comforts and possessions).  The altruistic motivation was less convincing when I asked the follow up question of whether this current profession was the best way that this individual, as an individual, could add value to society (their answer was no).  So they were left with a base primary motivation as saving for retirement, legacy building, and the acquisition of material comforts and possessions.

So then I asked – how do you not see the risk in your position?  I find your premise terribly risky!  You are foregoing the best 30 years of your life in terms of energy and the ability to contribute to others, on the gamble that you actually live until you are 65, and at that time have the health, desire and ability to actually pursue other things.  Plus it is very likely at that point that you will not have the ability to pursue your entrepreneurial aspirations, so you are further risking the premise that you will actually be content with a typical “retiree’s” lifestyle (for the record one that I have zero interest in).  Your path is just as risky, if not more risky, in my eyes than my path – moving away from a traditional,  more secure, track to an less traditional, less secure track, so that I can experience fulfillment and engagement in the present moment.

There was more to our conversation however – a part that was unstated, but rang more prominent than anything that was said.  The real issue wasn’t risk.  It was the possibility of failure – and worst of all – public failure.

Why are we conditioned so efficiently to be terrified of failure?

If I take a scientific method to my life, isn’t failure not only helpful, but also absolutely necessary.  I start with the premise that I want to accomplish X objective.  Yet I don’t know the exact path to accomplish X objective.  Therefore, I seek input from others who have knowledge of X objective (and how to obtain it).  However, I soon find out that despite their input and knowledge, the path is one that ultimately I must discover on my own.  In order to discover the path I must gain knowledge and experience, and the best way to do that is to fail.  Fail and learn. Fail and grow.  Learn from mistakes.  Gain good judgement from making bad decisions.  Really then there is no such thing as failure. There are only results.  This is a scientific process.  If I don’t get the result that I want then I just change my approach.  I continue to change my approach until I get the result that I want.

Why are we so scared of this process?  Why do we condition our kids to be so terrified of failure?  Isn’t failure the only way that we can ultimately grow?

A primary reason that we avoid failure at all costs is that we really don’t like criticism.  Criticism makes us feel alone, isolated from the pack.  When we are alone we are in danger.  We don’t have the protection of the group.  Right?

However, some of the most fantastic advancements in our world have been the product of trial and error – or in other words “failure”.

Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error  said,  “Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list”. “It is our meta-mistake: We are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition.”

“Failure and defeat are life’s greatest teachers [but] sadly, most people, and particularly conservative corporate cultures, don’t want to go there,” says Ralph Heath, author of Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big. “Instead they choose to play it safe, to fly below the radar, repeating the same safe choices over and over again. They operate under the belief that if they make no waves, they attract no attention; no one will yell at them for failing because they generally never attempt anything great at which they could possibly fail (or succeed).”

In my opinion the biggest reason that people are terrified of failure is that they haven’t engaged the first step in the scientific method – they have no idea what they actually want.  They don’t even know what they are looking for.  They have no clue what the objective is.  They see the objective in general terms and it usually deals with a base level of material comforts, social position, and community significance.  So they cling to the institutions that they think will best provide these.  The problem is that these institutions rarely provide them with fulfillment.

The simple answer – determine exactly what you want with clarity and then pursue it using a scientific method.  Trial and error, and failure, being a necessary and valuable part of the process, until your desire is obtained.

Failure can be a virtue.

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