Dec 10, 2012

We Tried to Come Up With a Clever Headline For This Post, But Failed. Should We Celebrate That?

As far as Peter Drucker was concerned, fear of failure was a staple of modern life. The “psychological pressures and emotional traumas of the rat race” have only intensified over the past few decades, and the obsession of parents with getting their children on the right educational path underscores, as Drucker put it in Managing in the Next Society, “how much the fear of failure has already permeated the knowledge society.”

In such an environment, perhaps it was inevitable that one way we would seek to shield ourselves from the fear was to convince ourselves that failure is our friend—that it makes us far wiser, thanks to the mistakes from which we learn.

This is particularly applicable to Silicon Valley, home to so many startup successes and so many more startup failures. But New Republic writer Lydia DePillis, for one, isn’t buying it. She says one of the biggest problems with the idea that failure makes you stronger is that it’s simply not true. “Google’s venture capital arm ran the numbers, and found that entrepreneurs whose first business did well had a 29% chance of success on their second, compared to a 16% success rate for people who’d failed their the first time around,” DePillis writes. “Sure, it’s possible to extract value from failure. But most of it is just wasted energy.”

We suspect Drucker would largely have agreed with this. It’s not that he saw failure as an inexcusable and useless calamity. Indeed, as we’ve pointed out, Drucker felt that a company failure often indicated an unnoticed change in the world, a change that was also an opportunity. As we’ve also noted, Drucker believed that “nobody learns except by making mistakes.”

That said, Drucker didn’t consider failure to be the ideal teacher. This was a lesson he learned as a youngster while watching legendary pianist Artur Schnabel teach a young pupil by sitting down to the piano to play a piece himself. “I suddenly perceived that I myself would always learn by looking for performance,” Drucker recalled in his memoir Adventures of a Bystander. “I suddenly realized that the right method, at least for me, was to look for the thing that worked and for the people who perform. I realized that I, at least, do not learn from mistakes. I have to learn from successes.”

DePillis notes in her article that there are “a zillion ways to fail, and resolving to avoid the mistake that did you in the first time doesn’t shield you from making another one.” Drucker, for his part, wrote, “I believe in one of Martin Buber’s early books—the saying of the wise rabbi of the first century: ‘The Good Lord has so created Man that everyone can make every conceivable mistake on his own. Don’t ever try to learn from other people’s mistakes. Learn what other people do right.’”

What do you think: Is failure overrated as a teacher?

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