Historical Perspective on Failure

633 Days Inside by Greg Lindberg


Historical Perspective on Failure

Running a business requires experience and experience requires failure.

We honor stories of heroic perseverance: Thomas Edison and his 10,000 attempts to find the filament that could burn inside a light bulb; Dyson’s 5,126 attempts to make a bagless vacuum cleaner; and Helen Keller’s determination to communicate, despite being deaf and blind. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple before he returned and made it the $2 trillion tech giant it is today.

We can only succeed if we embrace failure as our ally, as a badge of pride. We have to honor the effort, the struggle and not the result. We need to seek failure early. Not as a risk, not as setback, but as a moment of learning that offers us the momentum to propel us for ward. When you fail early and often, you avoid catastrophic failure later.

The true innovators in our world—people such as Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Patricia Bath, and Temple Grandin—place no value on the judgment of others. They succeed because failure isn’t shameful for them. It isn’t a humiliation. It’s just a lesson learned.

The most rigid, top-down hierarchical societies, companies and cultures are the least innovative because they breed fear of failure and fear of judgment. It’s a cycle that’s hard to break. Rules become increasingly complex and convoluted as successive governments pass their own laws and regulations on top of previous laws and regulations.

In 1927, for example, all of the federal laws in the United States could fit into a single volume. By the 1980s, there were 50 volumes of federal laws comprising more than 23,000 pages. Between 1995 and 2014, there were more than 4,200 new federal laws enacted and more than 88,000 federal regulations enacted.

The more these complex rules multiply, the more people are taught to fear failure and the more ossified the entire society, company or culture becomes. This fear of failure is not unfounded. Most Americans have no idea what the tens of thousands of federal laws cover.

With a maze of tens of thousands of laws getting more complex every day, the individual has much to fear from running afoul of the power of the state. Socialism, in all of its forms, including National socialism, Soviet socialism, Chinese communism and Cuban socialism, is based on this single idea of dominating individuals through fear of judgment and reprisal. Socialist societies ostracize and prosecute those who do not conform in order to maintain their centralized power structure.

Socialist societies achieve this centralized power with tens of thousands of complex laws that all ensure that in order to be a law-abiding citizen, you must conform. The larger the government, the more the socialist tendency to quash the individual emerges, and the more self-reliant individuals are persecuted and shamed. This is the self-preservation instinct at the core of all socialist societies. Those in positions of power know that anyone who does not pay them homage, who challenges their power, ultimately challenges their legitimacy.

We are in the late stages of this in the United States today. We have become a nation steeped in the orthodoxy of millions of pages of indecipherable laws and even more complex social rules via which anyone can be charged with a felony. Our independent pioneer spirit has been quashed by the fear of failure. The American dream has become a straitjacket.

Complex laws proliferate everything we do. Government investigations abound in numerous directions, and with constant frequency. CEOs are routinely fired and careers are ruined for an ever-increasing list of “bad behaviors.” Very few people are ever given a chance to learn from their mistakes—which, it turns out, is the only way to learn.

The United States today is an enormous “Leviathan” reaching into every aspect of our lives. Millions of pages of laws and regulations govern every aspect of our daily lives. If the FBI wants to investigate you or charge with you a felony, it can do so at will. Most Americans have no idea they could be charged with a felony for their routine business, tax, political, environmental, travel or recreational drug use activities.

It’s not just U.S. citizens that are at risk. Even citizens of small towns in foreign countries can fall into the clutches of the tentacles of the Leviathan. Three U.S. senators recently sent a threatening letter to Fährhafen Sassnitz GmbH, which operates Mukran Port, alerting the company to its exposure to sanctions related to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. In the letter, the senators wrote, “This letter serves as formal legal notice that these goods, services, support, and provisioning risk exposing Fährhafen Sassnitz GmbH and Mukran Port, as well as your board members, corporate officers, shareholders, and employees, to crushing legal and economic sanctions, which our government will be mandated to impose.”

I highly doubt the good citizens of Sassnitz, a small German fishing village, ever thought they could be hit with “crushing legal and economic sanctions” for their work on building a pipeline. Some Americans might think that the American model is the right model for the entire world. So, “Tough luck, small German fishing village. Do it our way,” they say.

There is a different perspective to consider. With the United States being at the center of the global capitalist system, virtually anyone who touches a United States dollar anywhere in the world can be charged with a felony in the United States. This means maybe a billion people or more are unaware that they could be charged with a felony in the United States for something they had no idea was a crime. These people likely don’t even speak our language, let alone understand our laws.

Even if your activity is not a felony, a federal prosecutor and an aggressive FBI agent can use their unlimited time and resources to build a case that a jury will believe because, after all, we are taught to conform from a very early age. And if you are the unlucky target of a federal prosecutor and the FBI, you don’t stand a chance of winning unless you have $10 million to spend and can afford to not work at your “day job” for three or four years.

To paraphrase Rob Cary, if you need luck or money to ensure justice, we don’t have much of a “justice” system at all. “Countless people have spent decades in state and federal prisons wrongfully convicted of crimes because of deliberate misconduct by prosecutors—none of whom have been held accountable for their wrongdoing,” notes Sidley Powell and Harvey Silverglate.

As Daniel Medwed says, “Wrongful convictions tear at the tattered fabric of public confidence in the rule of law and the people chosen to enforce it. Without major repair efforts, the damage may soon be too great to restore faith in the idea of justice.”

The rule of law requires that citizens be able to readily understand what is lawful and what is not. The rule of law requires that citizens be able to rely on law enforcement and government agents to tell them the truth about the law. The rule of law requires that citizens be able to trust law enforcement not to deceive them about the law. The rule of law requires that prosecutors and the judiciary be free from personal bias and political motivations. The rule of law requires that the law be applied equally to all, regardless of whether you can afford a defense lawyer or if your financial success makes you a “juicy” target for prosecutors.

Harvey Silverglate says it best: “When the feds appear on the scene, claiming to represent public interest by going after some citizen who had no reasonable way of knowing that his or her conduct could be deemed a felony, do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for all.”


Democracy is not the ultimate protector of freedom. Understandable rule of law uninflated by politics is more certain to protect freedom even in a monarchy.

Unfortunately for the Leviathan, the fundamental essence of being human is a desire for freedom. From the very beginning, we strive to earn the freedom to crawl, walk, and run. The fear of judgment that holds the Leviathan together is always overcome by brave risk-takers who are willing to fight for the truth, regardless of the cost. These first-movers inspire others to action. Democracy is not the ultimate protector of freedom. Understandable rule of law uninflated by politics is more certai n to protect freedom even in a monarchy.

What happens if we continue to live in fear of judgment and fear of reprisal from the Leviathan? Or, for that matter, live in fear of reprisal from anyone in our lives? Those who fail to fight for the truth—and take action on that truth—out of fear of judgment remain in a prison of theirown making. Their freedom is a mirage.

Someday, you might be faced with having to make a choice about which prison you will be locked up in—a prison of your own making or a real prison run by those whom you have been so bold as to challenge. If you find yourself in the latter, the good news is that it will make you stronger.

The essence of being human is the will to be free. This starts from the day we are born. My son, at the age of 11-months old, had one fundamental goal: to control his own destiny. At that point, that meant walking and talking. He had a lot to say, but no one could understand him just yet. He really wanted to walk and got annoyed that he couldn’t.

We can only achieve our fundamental desire for freedom by developing a will, as well as a power behind that will.

Societies, companies, and families that empower people with the most freedom will see that trust returned in spades with accountability and responsibility. This, is turn, will produce results for that society, company, or family far in excess of its peers.

Ultimately, a Leviathan whose tentacles are so intertwined in the life of its citizens will collapse of its own weight. People stop taking initiative and stop delivering results. The elites have no one left to scalp. Ancient Rome, Soviet Russia and the British Empire all ultimately fell apart from myriad laws, taxes, and repeated scalping of anyone who was brave enough to stand out. Quite simply, the tentacles of the Leviathan reached too deeply into the life of the citizens and suffocated the very thing they were designed to protect.

The essence of being human is the will to be free.

With all due respect to political philosopher and author of Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, he failed to see this coming when he waxed poetic about the power and utility of the Leviathan to administer the affairs of humanity. Karl Mar x made similar errors. There is not a limited amount of power in society , as Karl Mar x believed. There is an unlimited amount of power in the minds of each and every individual who chooses to harness it. All power is fundamentally derived from each individual’s will to be free.

In Marxist-Communist societies, only the elites have any free will. At its most extreme in the Communist or Socialist dictatorship, the leader harnesses all the free will in the entire society. The society exists to serve the will of the leader alone. No one else is free.