07 December 2011

Sure You Have What it Takes to Win. Who Doesn't? The Real Question is, Do You Have What It Takes to Fail?

The older I get, the more convinced I am that we don't do enough to celebrate failure. Progress depends on it.

In January, one team will win the Super Bowl. The only reason they get to do that is because 31 other teams did not. In sports, nobody wins without someone losing. You can't hope for a win without simultaneously hoping for a loss. Loss is not due to lackluster effort, unimaginative creative visualization, or bad karma. Loss in sports is designed into the outcomes. Just like wins.

But sports is just made up. We don't have to have failure in the real world, you might say. We can, for instance, design an educational system in which everyone wins. Perhaps. But failure is still an essential part of life and is as vital to progress in the real world as it is to champions in the artificial world of sports.

Think about it. If history is any guide, sometime in the next year some people will start a new company destined for greatness - a company that will, in its prime, remind us of GM, IBM, or Google in theirs. But even more companies will flag somewhere between inception and this grand goal, will get buried in the landfill of failed expectations. Lots and lots of variables go into winners and losers and no one can be exactly sure which will make the next generation of winners win and which will make them lose.

If a community wants to be home to the next big company, it has to fund lots and lots of companies you'll never hear of. Uncertainty alone means that winners require lots of losers.

The same is true in the competition for the next generation of theories to explain psychology, cosmology, disease and everything else. Again, given that everyone has a shot at defining the next big theory, lots and lots of theories will have to be expounded in order for the few that move us forward to emerge. A million books will be published this year - yet only a tiny number will sell more than a million copies. And the list of such ensured failures goes on.

By definition, the vast majority of attempts to change the status quo will fail.

Yet the advance of history depends on these winners which - in turn - depend on these failures. To avoid failure is to avoid winning. Any community that doesn't teach its people that failure is inevitable, noble, and essential to progress risks having too few big wins.

And in the end, I wonder if failure or winning isn't somehow more random than we'd ever care to admit. Given this, perhaps it is worth remembering that you do what you do because of who you are, not because you really expect to "win." And maybe an increase in the portion of people doing this is the definition of progress.

1 comment:

MD said...

Ron, saw your article in the UT. Interesting concept. From my perspective many people are afraid to try what you call entrepreneurship -- or what others call self-employment. Many are more comfortable letting others take the risks, others are not confident enough, some see it as too much work to run a business. Personally I think it is the only way to remotely control your own destiny anymore. After an 8-year stint as a business owner I sold my company to a very large company, so for a while at least I am back in the machine.