Now Get Out There and Fail!
You’ve completed your course work, snatched up your diplomas and hit up all of your parents’ friends for graduation gifts.
You’ve also probably heard more advice and inspirational words than you can stomach, although if someone sidled up to you and said, knowingly, “plastics,” that was worth a belly laugh, even if you didn’t get the reference from the 1967 film The Graduate.
Now, if you really want to know something that will help you as you get on with your lives and your careers, pay heed to what Ralph Keyes has to say: “Now get out there and fail!”
Keyes and co-author Richard Farson recently published a book titled Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins: The Paradox of Innovation. In it, they argue quite persuasively that failure not only is an unavoidable fact of life but, probably, the engine that drives success.
“If we’re trying to do anything with this book, it’s to destigmatize failure and to suggest that the worst way to achieve success is to pursue success and avoid failure,” Keyes said last week from his Yellow Springs, Ohio, home.
“That’s a very hard message to sell in this society because we’re so success-oriented,” the eclectic author explained. “It seems like every other book you see has success in its title. Dress for Success. Ten Ways to Success.”
The authors cite dozens of examples of failures that led to successes and quote a variety of successful people who also believe in the failure-breeds-success model. One of the most ridiculed business initiatives in recent times was the Coca-Cola Co.’s decision to change its formula to create New Coke, for example.
Yes, New Coke was an extraordinary flop. But, the authors argue, the failure taught the company that its value was in its brand, not its formula. Coke rebounded to increase its market share, wiser for the lessons learned in failure.
A Yale student named Fred Smith earned a C — not exactly a failure but close in the Ivy League culture — for a paper proposing an overnight delivery service. Smith’s professor dismissed his thesis as implausible. Smith took his idea forward after college anyway and created a company called Federal Express.
The great inventor Charles Kettering once said, “Failing is one of the greatest arts in the world. One fails toward success.” Henry Ford called failure “the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.” And the man who made IBM the dominant force in the computer world for many years, Thomas Watson Sr., said, “The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”
“Among the startup people in Silicon Valley, there is almost a failure chic,” Keyes pointed out. “One guy will say, “I’ve gone belly-up twice and the next guy will say, ‘Well, I’ve gone bankrupt six times.'”
The point is that big or innovative ideas would never get off the ground if people weren’t afraid to fail. “It’s one reason our economy is so vibrant compared to older economies such as those in Europe,” Keyes said. “To take a chance and fail is one of the worst things that can happen to you in those systems.”
Indeed, when Congress tightened up bankruptcy laws at the urging of the Bush administration last year, many economists argued that the measures would only discourage the kind of cutting-edge innovation that made the United States an economic giant in the first place.
Keyes says the fear of failure paradigm also applies in the sports world. “Look at the Winter Olympics. Michelle Kwan was clearly going for the gold and it made her tense and somewhat rigid,” Keyes said. “Sarah Hughes wasn’t thought to have a chance for the gold and she skated wonderfully because she wasn’t carrying the fear of failure that hampered Kwan.”
Keyes believes that the FBI’s recent problems can be attributed in part to an institutional culture that held on to structures and methods that had been successful in the past. “They enjoyed so much success catching bank robbers and the like that they saw no reason to restructure themselves to better handle intelligence and the challenges of the modern world,” he said.
All of this also applies to recent graduates of high school or college, Keyes said. “I think schools have a very bad success-failure model. You succeed or fail. You got a good grade or a bad grade. And if you got a bad grade, you’re a failure.
“What we’re trying to propose is the question, ‘Is the distinction between success and failure that clear?’ It isn’t in real life. We can all look back at our own lives and see times that seemed like setbacks to us but actually pushed us in a new direction that led to some success.”
As has often been pointed out, Microsoft’s Bill Gates was a Harvard drop-out. And David Letterman endowed a scholarship at his alma mater, Ball State, specifying that it should go to reward creativity and not grade point average.
“Actually,” Keyes said, “it’s fairly surprising to see how often the best students in high school or college do not go on to become the most accomplished citizens later in life.”