– James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA
Why is it that really smart people continue to help others justify their lack of success by praising failure? This year Harvard Business Review devoted an annual issue to failure. The New York Times Sunday Magazine recently published an entire issue devoted to failure. Amazon lists 23,118 books with the word “failure” in the title. What gives?
Somewhere along the line, the folks who were supposed to be intelligent, forward thinking, and future makers, have gone down this weird side road called In Praise of Failure. More and more CEOs are writing about looking for employees who can fail successfully.
Ron Friedman’s new book (which I like), “The Best Place to Work,” begins by telling us that “success is overrated,” then devotes the first chapter to the metrics of failure. Defining success in terms of failure has been around for a long time but the concept is now so ubiquitous that its original lesson seems lost . . . although Dr. Friedman works hard to do just that using Babe Ruth, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and others as examples of geniuses who failed a lot more than they succeeded.
My favorite of the success defining failures is the story of Thomas Edison. He is reputed to have said, after being asked by a reporter, “Why did it take you more than 4000 failed attempts to invent something as simple as a light bulb filament?” Edison’s response was said to have been, “I just ran out of ways to do it wrong.”
The problem with these examples is that they’re all about genuine geniuses who persevered, struggled and overcame the odds against their own success.
The way these stories of failure are generally applied are, however, entirely different. According to the current conventional wisdom of failure, we should probably be doubling the salaries of all people engaged in education in America because they produce so much consistent student failure and lack of success. In recent years, the level of quality as evidenced by college students taking employment examinations has slid tremendously. We routinely send new hires to grammar school, spelling school, writing school, listening school, remedial course studies schools. The students seemed puzzled because their professors rarely demanded perfection in these areas.
Or, how about General Motors with several million cars in recall status, reflecting failure on a massive scale.
Perhaps we should raise the salaries of people who manage our prisons. High recidivism rates indicate extraordinary failure in rehabilitating prisoners.
Promoting failure as a desirable outcome makes failure a viable outcome. Encouraging failure denigrates success and achievement. All the examples of successful failures are of geniuses.
How about Congress and the President? In the minds of many both are enormous failures and disappointments. When will the smart people start praising all of these elected folks — new and old — who daily let our country down, our culture down, and perhaps open our country to extraordinary vulnerability?
Sadly, the greatest daily engine of failure promotion in American society remains the news media and the new media (sometimes more anti than social). These institutions revel in errors, mistakes, bad outcomes, and forecast new dooms every day. The sheer volume of attention and resources showered on perpetrators and big time criminals at the expense of victims is enormously disheartening. If you think the news is bad right now . . . just wait a few nano-seconds, the current news cycle, and it will get worse. The media often appear to hope for mistakes, victimization, self-induced or intentionally induced drama and damage.
Adoring and praising failure, contention, conflict, confrontation and minimizing achievement, accomplishment, success, and progress contributes to the confusion over the roles, goals and direction of our culture and society.
Babe Ruth worked extremely hard to get the opportunity to make all those strikeouts in
the major leagues while hitting all those home runs. Thomas Edison was relentless in his efforts to find something as elementary as a light bulb filament. The garage boys, Gates, Jobs, Hewlett and Packard were extraordinarily purposeful in their mistake making, something overlooked in our culture and educational system.
The core problem with encouraging failure is that far too many who do fail, aren’t guided to learn anything from the experience because they can get by. The glib acceptance of failure lets far too many off the hook about the true challenges of getting ahead and achieving.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we woke up one day and said, “Making mistakes carelessly or intentionally is unlikely to help you become a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. That’s what it appears we are allowing ourselves to believe and advocate. Let’s stop the phony self-forgiveness that is so automatic these days. What if we committed to building a culture that expects the right thing before doing anything? If rather than promoting wrongness, we celebrated rightness; achievement; success and helping each other get it right, whatever the right happens to be?
If someone ever publishes,” Failure for Dummies,” skip it. You should rather buy and read the book, “Failure is For Geniuses,” which shines a truthful light on how extremely difficult it is to fail yet succeed.