We’ve come a long way from the shame of failure over the years:
- In 800 BC Greece, failed business merchants sat in the marketplace with a basket over their heads.
- Between 500 -1500 AD Italy,, failed business owners with debt, were taken naked to the public square. They were required to bang their buttocks against a special stone while a crowd booed at them.
- In 17th century France, failed business owners were taken to the center of the market and their bankruptcy was announced. To avoid imprisonment, they had to wear a green bonnet, a sign of failure.
We don’t publicly shame failure like we did in the past, but we still haven’t normalized it.
Interesting facts about failure from the Failure Institute
- Men and women react differently to business failure:
- In general, men start a new business in a different sector within one year of failure. They feel they have enough knowledge and experience to try again.
- Women search for a job and postpone starting a business. Gasca, suggests that women suffer from impostor syndrome more than men, are risk adverse and insecure even though they have enough knowledge and experience to try again.
- Regional differences in how entrepreneurs cope with failure.
- In America they go back to school.
- In Europe the most common reaction is to look for a therapist.
- Government and policy can impact business with burdensome regulatory or administrative requirements. When businesses fail, the requirements may deter entrepreneurs from trying again.
Fail Fast, Fail Often, Fail Mindfully!
This is the rally cry of today’s entrepreneurs.
- The good news about failing fast is that you learn a lot quickly so that you can move on to the next business idea. The bad news is that it may be causing entrepreneurs to give up more easily, rather than trying again.
- Failing fast has broader implications than the failed business in question. It affects those directly involved with the business; customers, staff, partners, and it has economic impacts.
- The same issues apply to failing often. In addition, it takes a pretty strong ego to fail often.
Leticia Gasca coined the term “fail mindfully in her TED talk. She is the CEO of a think tank that studies business failures. Fail mindfully means being aware of the impact that the failure of a business has on the community it serves such as, lost jobs, income, business, partnerships, and other opportunities. It also means that failed buisness owners have an opportunity to learn from their experience and from others who failed as well. Her failed business made her more aware of what failure did to the livelihood and independence of women of an indigenous community.
Scott Cowen, past president of Tulane University in New Orleans, shared his leadership learnings from rebuilding Tulane University after hurricane Katrina hit. He also discussed his failure to take a strategic view of the project and the impacts of that undertaking.
While his focus was to rebuild the university, which he did quickly, he didn’t consider the bigger picture. The city of New Orleans did not rebuild as quickly as the university, so Tulane University became a less desirable place to go to school. Students wanted an education and to experience the excitement and thriving social scene of New Orleans. Because there wasn’t a thriving social scene, students didn’t come. As a result, the university struggled for years to recruit students.
Why Normalizing Failure is Important
Failure is associated with feelings of shame, humiliation, incompetence, and being a “loser”. It hasn’t become socially acceptable to talk as freely about failure as it is to talk about success, so failing isn’t being normalized.
Failure is a Steppingstone to Success
In a previous post, I shared information about a research study on failure from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. The study objective was to help students understand that failure is part of learning. Researchers normalized failure by sharing stories with students about the struggles inventors and scientists faced before they succeeded. As result of hearing the stories, grades improved. Students that only learned about success saw their marks drop. The takeaway from this study is that failure is normal when you are learning or doing something new, and it is important to understand, learn where you failed, and do better the next time.
Failure and leadership development
When Leticia Gasca’s business failed, it took her seven years before she could talk about it with others. She shared her experience and learned from others that also failed in their business. In doing so, she realized that people needed to share stories of failure and learn from one another. That was when she became involved with others to create a platform to share stories called Fuckup Nights. This organization helps companies to learn from failure, develop vulnerable leaders, and build safe spaces, to improve productivity and innovation in teams.
Before the current success of Apple products,, there was the Apple Newton (The Newton was a Personal Digital Assistant developed by Apple in the late 80s and early 90s). This device was short lived and considered a failure, but led to the successful iPhone, and iPad.
There was also Apple Lisa (Apple Lisa was a personal computer designed at Apple Computer, Inc. during the early 1980s). It was also a failure and it ultimately led to the Apple Mac. These failures were learning experiences that led to massive success later on.
The Apple brand is recognizable and successful.
James Dyson a successful entrepreneur, was responsible for the development of Dyson vacuum cleaners and other Dyson products. There were thousands of prototypes of the vacuum cleaner that led to the current Dyson products. With each failed attempt, he learned from his mistakes before he launched d the next version.
Dyson is a well recognized brand.
Jack Ma, the cofounder and former executive chairman of the Alibaba group, (a multinational technology conglomerate), business magnate and philanthropist, speaks about the value of failing. He sees that failure is a necessary part of the process to success and is what led to his becoming a CEO.
At an interview at the World Economic Forum he spoke about his personal failures which included:
- Not getting a job qt KFC, when he was the only one of 24 people who applied and didn’t get it.
- Not getting a job as a server in a hotel when his cousin did.
- Not getting into Harvard, he applied 10 times.
When we see failure as a learning experience and a tool, and when talk about it, we begin to normalize it. We can use failure as our learning path to get to something better. Consider the examples above, of those who reframed their failures as learnings, they went on to do big things that served others.