We are often asked to dream of success, to imagine what life will look like when we win. But any such victory is likely to come only after agonizing failure and “practice shots.” Unfortunately, society does not prepare us for this failure. In fact, society abhors failure and teaches us from a very young age to avoid it. From the day our first grade is given in school, we are taught that failure is a problem. We are taught not to fail on exams—let alone on something bigger, such as a business, a career, or a marriage. Fear of failure is driven into our psyche and culture at the deepest level.
As a result, for most people coming of age today the only safe route is to conform and to not make any waves.
This is a natural defensive mechanism driven by fear of opinion. Anyone who strikes out on their own runs the risk of embarrassment, being ostracized, being fired, and even prosecuted. In this kind of society, individualism and selfreliance are replaced with conformity and reliance on the accepted norms.
Unless we foster a willingness to fail, along with the courage to endure all manner of indignities and persecution, we might end up with generations of people living the life of the cold and timid soul who knows neither victory nor defeat.
The immediate feedback loop of today’s social media world compounds this problem and makes people even more afraid of not getting enough “likes.” The fact that everything you do will stay with you forever thanks to the internet is a heavy burden on people growing up today. The pressure to conform, not make waves and not take risks is enormous. Worse, you have no idea how culture will change in the future, and what is perfectly acceptable language or culture today may be grounds for ostracism later.
Instead of a world of cold and timid souls afraid of the slightest negative comment on Instagram, a much healthier approach is to learn to celebrate failing early and failing often.
A rethinking of our entire approach to failure is needed—especially if we are going to encourage the millions of people whose lives have been wrecked by COVID-19 to find the strength to turn their adversity into a greater advantage.
Failure is one of the most successful ways humans learn and society develops. When we don’t succeed, we try again, each time moving forward with the knowledge we have gained from our past experience.
I am grateful that the failures and adversities I am facing now have come at a time when I have the energy and vigor to tackle them. Had these challenges come later in life, they could have been far more catastrophic.
Failure is a stigma in our society today, and that ultimately prevents people from recovering from failure. Failure should not be a stigma. Rather, it should be a badge of honor that you tried. You did your best, but it didn’t work out. The tuition you paid was priceless. Put your newfound education from the School of Hard Knocks to work and try again.
We need to encourage learning through failure in school, business, relationships, and the justice system. Before we can learn from failure, we need to stop being frightened of failure and stop punishing failure so severely. We need opportunities to learn that failure isn’t fatal and being right isn’t the reward.
We need to celebrate being different just as much as being right. Our ability to learn from failure is in direct proportion to our ability not to fear the judgment of others and our ability to tolerate the unorthodox in our society.
Often, the right answer is simply a matter of our cultural perspective. The more diversity in any society, the more tolerance for new ideas and the more tolerance of failure and the unorthodox. The most diverse societies and organizations are the most successful in developing ideas that change humanity for the better.
We limit the growth potential of human ingenuity when we punish failure and ostracize and criticize those who are different. Ultimately, we all pay the price—with shorter lives and less prosperity.