“Fail fast!” “Pivot!” An entire business vocabulary has sprung up around the idea of failure. Talking about failure has become so en vogue it’s even passé in some industries: A once-successful Silicon Valley conference called FailCon, well, failed. FailCon focused on presenters and attendees sharing stories of their flops, but the event’s founder cancelled the 2014 conference because, as she told The New York Times, “Failure chatter is now so pervasive in Silicon Valley that a conference almost seems superfluous. It’s in the lexicon that you’re going to fail.”
Going to fail? Really? Simply put, I’m with Captain Kirk from Star Trek: I may make mistakes, but I refuse to accept the parameters of the “Kobayashi Maru” or the no-win scenario as an assessment of my character. I get the moral dilemma behind tests like the one I saw people take on National Geographic Channel’s Brain Games: A runaway train heading down a track will kill a bunch of bystanders unless you pull a switch and change the direction of the train, but pulling the switch will kill a single worker on the tracks: What do you do? I know this and countless other tests are about assessing my character and moral compass, but they are ridiculous. I understand the dilemma, but I don’t accept the value of the no-win situation.
Simply put, failure has become too much of a badge of honor in this country. I’m never going into a situation thinking I’m going to fail no matter how risky or seemingly impossible it is. There's always a win-win scenario that doesn’t involve hurting anyone if that’s what you want to do. I get why we think it’s OK to fail. Some companies file Chapter 11 without shame and recover. It’s a mechanism for a do over, and there is nothing wrong with a mulligan. But it’s better not to use it.
I believe we're making so much of our mistakes and thinking of failure as the new black that we're getting bad at celebrating actual success. And isn’t that what we're really talking about here: success? Did you ever notice in the stories about failures that we never talk to the long-term losers—only those who failed after making big wins or went on to greater triumphs? If they hadn’t ever succeeded we wouldn’t be talking to them. I wouldn’t want to make a career as a continual loser who finds success only in failure. You wouldn’t want to listen to me. No one listens to permanent losers.
Maybe the reason we don’t celebrate success enough is because we think and act small; the successes aren't much to celebrate. That’s the real danger here: allowing the voices in our heads to creep in again and keep us from thinking and acting big.
Here’s the thing: How many of you believe that if faced with that Brain Games train test you could actually act? It’s easy to answer hypothetical questions about morality, but these tests assume we have the ability to act in the moment. I know too many people who would simply fail to act—not because they're bad people but because, as we hear in so many wartime stories, the stress of having to make that decision causes them to freeze. Few of us will ever face anything like a runaway train, but one thing this scenario proves is that the worst thing to do is nothing. Then someone dies no matter what, and no one even tried to act bigger. When no one is willing to act, no one fails, but no one wins either. NO ONE WINS.
We shouldn’t celebrate failure, but we can’t afford to wish it away. Sadly, this seems to be what we're teaching our kids: that everyone is a winner. After all, if everyone is a winner, then no one is. Why are we afraid of that? Whose self-esteem are we trying to protect: the parents’ or the kids’? Take it from Michael Williams, the former CMO of Grand Prix America who has also worked for the NFL’s San Francisco ’49ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils: “I have two daughters, 10 and 13, and it absolutely kills me that they give trophies out for fifth and sixth place teams and participating. I think the reason sports is so valuable is it teaches you about sacrifice, how to deal with success and failure, individual and team accomplishments and goals, and how to work towards a common objective as a group that you may not even agree with some of the time but know it is for the better of the team.”