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VOL. 128 | NO. 244 | Monday, December 16, 2013
Graber Atkinson

Michael Graber & Jocelyn Atkinson

Since When is Failure Good?


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Failure is the new business and innovation buzzword. Magazine articles, consultants and even professors are encouraging everyone to “learn to fail.”

Their intent is to break the hardwiring in our culture that trains us to strive for success and perfection because they believe this limits our appetite for taking risk. They hold up poor Thomas Edison as a famous failure and use Winston Churchill’s quote “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm” as support for their mantra. The failure zealots celebrate failure and encourage everyone to not just fail, but fail a lot.

We are one of the few dissenting voices in the crowd and we are blowing the whistle to say that this has gone too far. We would argue that this overblown trendy topic not only has its semantics wrong but the ideology is off the mark as well. Much like the “all of the kids get an award” approach, encouraging and supporting failure diffuses the competitive drive and the tenacity required to take it all of the way to the finish line.

This must not be confused with creative thinking without restrictions. Experimentation and the proverbial sandbox is a safe zone. There are no wrong answers for ideas in this realm until they are stress tested and selected to go to market. If one idea or thesis generated as part of this process doesn’t generate wild success should it be classified as a failure? No. The word failure insinuates a finite event with an end point. Instead think of this as a useful iteration, a necessary part of the evolution taking place for ultimate market success. It is merely information to take back to the sandbox.

Perhaps, as a culture we have become less tenacious and more risk averse. Maybe we lack the fortitude of previous generations of American inventors and entrepreneurs. We are a culture of instant gratification, reaping the benefits of our ancestor’s innovations achieved through true ingenuity and resilience. As a whole, we have become a nation of wealth preservation rather than wealth generation. Our nation’s success has made us lazy and intolerant of a little adversity. The dot-com era did a great disservice by instilling the notion that overnight success is the norm.

The failure cheerleaders want you to get off the bench, get in the game and try. We want more for you – stay at it until you win.

Please don’t strive for failure. Why start with a negative outcome in mind? Really, what we need is a failure is not an option mind-set – solve problems by sticking with it and trying new things. Be open and nimble. If one approach doesn’t work it is not a failure, it is just an iteration on what will soon be a solution. The trick is to stay in constant motion- recognize what works and what doesn’t quickly and change course. In the entrepreneurial world, it is often the second patent that is the most valuable. The first gets the ball rolling but the second holds the break through.

Thomas Edison didn’t use the term failure for his 10,000 attempts to invent the light bulb. He described them simply as 10,000 things he tried that didn’t work. It’s not failure it is progress.

Jocelyn Atkinson and Michael Graber run the Southern Growth Studio, a strategic growth firm based in Memphis. Visit www.southerngrowthstudio.com to learn more.

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