The ‘F’ Word: Fetishising Failure & Tackling Taboo
“If failure is not an option then neither is success”
We are socialised from a young age to recoil at the concept of failure, doing all that we can to avoid having that status pinned to us as a badge of shame.
Our socialisation and education foster a fear of failure. Creativity, innovation and problem solving are stifled as soon as we are thrust into the current vacuum-like education system and told there is only right and wrong. A red cross is suddenly symbolic of our inadequacy or inability to meet the normative social expectations crafted to create generations of uniformity based on a derived average.
We must colour inside the lines and fill in the blanks at the same pace as a class of 30 peers. By stigmatising mistakes, we engender a risk-minimisation approach to life, utterly quashing innovation and artistry. Avoidance of failure is the avoidance of trying new things and ultimately relinquishing our capacity to realise ~true~ success.
Children are grouped into levels dictating their ability to meet prescribed levels of intellect taught one, supposedly, universally felicitous way. Those falling at the bottom end of the spectrum are implicitly treated as inferior and inept. Confidence levels wane and students become conditioned to accept the red lines and crosses as a reflection of their ability and worth within the education system and greater community. A fear of failing is fostered and flourishes.
As prescribed by society, they are failing the education system. It’s a harsh indictment of the education system, and perhaps, society as a whole.
However, the time for changing and addressing this quagmire is now, in fact, it’s already happening.
Silicon Valley is the incubator of the world’s creative geniuses. Interestingly, the prevailing and predominant mantra is ‘fail fast, fail often’, extolling renegade thinking and challenging the status quo.
Failure, as a rite of passage, is estimated to have cost Silicon Valley into the billions of dollars. This begs the question: why encourage failure when the financial fallout is not only statistically likely, but so darn expensive and totally contravenes our socialisation?
Silicon Valley embraces failing forward, or ‘building to think rather than thinking to build’. Every time you get it wrong, you’re one step closer to getting it; not just right, but hitting the nail square on the head. These celebrated failures are usually small, with the billion dollar failure expense an accumulation of thousands of small projects. The takeaway: take smaller risks that contribute to evolving much larger ideas and products for the better – this is otherwise known as an innovation cycle, fuelled by perseverance and adaptability.
The failure fetish is epitomised by FailCon; an annual one-day conference to discuss the greatest failures. Ironically, it was cancelled this year having been rendered somewhat superfluous due to the pervasiveness of acknowledged and celebrated failure.
Bridging this cultural gap seems fairly simple: we need to change the way we have been taught to think about failure. This process is instrumental to personal growth; without taking risks and embracing failure you may just be destined to be another ~replaceable~ cog in the machine.
“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your job is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have fun, save a little money.
That’s a very limited life.
Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
The longevity of the failure culture in Silicon Valley remains to be seen, until then derive inspiration from their failure fetish, but take it with a grain of salt. Educated risks are empowering, but that’s precisely it – make sure they are educated. First and foremost, your failings do not make you a failure. However, to truly embrace failure you must scrutinise and identify your shortcomings, and then implement strategies to eliminate and evolve. The value in failing is the assessment; learning why and how to apply what you’ve learnt to your future endeavours. This doesn’t mean failure constitutes not giving it your best or cutting corners; it’s taking responsibility for your pursuits and not punishing yourself if you should ‘fail’ to immediately achieve your goals. Just remember: average work begets average results.
Consider where you have ‘failed’. Not landing the job, not getting the grades, getting a continuous stream of ‘no’s, being fired. The list is endless and utterly subjective. More often than not, reflection on why you failed will shed light on that dark place you shoved those feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, allowing the invaluable lessons reaped to shine through.
As a Uni student, I suffered from the anxiety of constantly comparing myself to my peers. Wistfully chasing the glory of attaining a high distinction. My problem was valuing the numerical outcome of my achievements rather than what I learnt, took away and still carry with me today. Subjects that had the most lingering impact weren’t necessarily those that I achieved the highest mark but those that I was most engaged with, taking an initiative and collaborating meanings. Often failing to meet my expectation of consistent high distinctions, I realised that degrees are commonplace, education curriculums through their failure facilitate information regurgitation rather than true understanding and engagement with topics. Through the beauty of hindsight, I learnt to appreciate the value of the knowledge, I was able to enjoy and truly relish the privilege I have in accessing higher education and the reward in risk taking, turning my attitude regarding studies full circle.
Transitioning from student to professional life will see you endure an onslaught of ‘no’s. Take it in your stride. Don’t lose face. Remind yourself of the value in failing, which is ultimately an opportunity for feedback. Get up, dust yourself off and get on with it. In the words of a failure trailblazer, Steve Jobs “stay hungry, stay foolish”.
Allow your understanding of failure to disassociate from what you’ve been socialised to believe. Feedback is invaluable therefore failure is too.
Perhaps we need to encourage the community to nurture the ‘failures’ and stragglers who, if given an opportunity to take an alternative path, may succeed to thrive once their dignity is restored and they are relieved of the imposed fail-shame.
What we have been socialised, through education and beyond, to believe constitutes failure is thoroughly incongruent with that believed to underpin the pathway to success as practised and celebrated in Silicon Valley. Which path you chose is entirely up to you.
Wield the power of your failures as you see fit; shrug them off, bottle them up or wear them on your sleeve for all to see.