The cult of failure is an opportunity to learn and try again

The Silicon Valley buzzword that seems to have had the most reach–even more so than Disruption or Killer App–is Failure. The billionaire sages all implore their entrepreneurial fans and colleagues to speed to failure: fail first, fail early, and so on. More than a few critics have dubbed this giddy embrace of failure a cult, the Cult of Failure.

This cult’s mantra is misleading at best because the point is not simply to fail but to pivot; to learn from failure, and not be permanently dissuaded from continued effort. Not only to get back up and try again but to try smarter. The message that failure itself is some form of accomplishment mixes valuable insight with oversimplification, a half-truth that self-congratulates more than it instructs.

The Science of Failure

The Cult of Failure asserts that to succeed, you must fail first–preferably, in a dramatic and catastrophic fashion. There is no greater bona fide in Silicon Valley than the story of a massive, and costly, failure. That kind of preoccupation with failure as the ultimate precursor to success misses a couple points, most importantly that learning must happen continuously, not just in the wake of that initial teachable moment.

At its best, the Cult of Failure approximates the scientific method: the goal is to iterate ideas, over and over, until they can be disproven, refined, and tested again. Disproving a hypothesis–or having a business go bust–isn’t the end of the experiment, it is an opportunity to pivot, refine, and start again.

The Cult of Failure, however, doesn’t warn against stagnation, which in a sense is the opposite problem of failure: allowing others to iterate right on past you. It is failure by default, rather than through iteration, experimentation, and development. When testing a hypothesis, the point is to keep iterating until it can be disproven, then developing a new hypothesis. The hypothesis is never truly complete, as each iteration is integrated to make it more robust, harder to disprove, and more instructive.

Failure does not have to mean a financial wipeout, an organizational meltdown, or some other existential drama. As countless college grads, business leaders, industry giants, managers and analysts know, the pace of change is accelerating. Their hypothesis is simple: my skills, knowledge, and contributions are relevant. This assertion is under constant threat, by economic forces, technological evolution, and global transitions. Staying relevant at all–preserving the viability of the hypothesis–means adapting, staying nimble, and never letting curiosity or trainability die.

The Success Trap

Success is as prone to inertia as failure: paralysis results from confidence as much as it does from a lack of confidence. Both can be fatal to organizations and individuals.

Getting organizations to pivot, adapt, survive and thrive in a tumultuous environment of constant change (or disruption) requires that both leadership and worker bees get on board with an adaptability mindset. Basically, in doing all the things such esteemed failures as Steve Jobs insist they were able to do by failing first: reinvention, redeployment, reeducation.

In leadership and management circles, Change Management is very nearly the hottest, most in-demand sector of expertise today. It isn’t a bandwagon–it is the new normal. Retaining talent, for employers as well as employees, takes a dedication to education. Constant learning, done correctly, will yield constant change and refresh relevance–for managers and leaders as well as the average worker. When you are running just to stay in place, however, that can mean the notion of failure adopts a different, more sinister association.

Failing forward is an important part of progress, but so is turning success into momentum, rather than a new status quo. None can afford to stagnate for long, whether in the wake of triumph or any definition of “failure.”

A Chance to Fail Again

For most, the promise of another round of VC backing or some other bailout isn’t there to make failure an affordable way to pursue reinvention and eventual success. While the start-ups have the opportunity to learn from their failure and fund their way forward, America’s college students are much more stigmatized and crippled when they don’t graduate within the requisite four years their first time in college. Here, the Cult of Failure takes on a sort of grotesque irony, because the cost of the initial failure frequently precludes any opportunity to get back up and try again.

Millions of dollars are effectively wasted every year subsidizing the education of college students who will drop out before graduating, never to return to complete their educations. Pell Grants, along with private money, federally-guaranteed student loans (and their associated debt, not contingent upon completion of the programs they purport to fund), all amount to a high-stakes investment game not all that different from the kind of venture capital that gets pooled behind variously lucrative and ludicrous start-ups.

The Academic Realm

Fortunately, in the academic realm, industry leaders are working to create something of a safe space allowing future college students a chance to try their luck with higher education at a reduced cost. Programs like ASU’s Global Freshman Academy (GFA) enroll students of various ages in college-level courses at reduced (and sometimes free) rates, enabling them to access collegiate materials and trial their interests, preparation, and motivation before fully committing.

In essence, they are finally getting the same opportunity for pre-failure that start-ups celebrate: early failure, to be followed by calibration, perseverance, and ultimately a more rewarding success. The point of programs like the GFA is obviously not to drive students to failure, but to free them up to explore their options, goals, and capacity to perform in college without fully mortgaging their future.

Failing Forward

The Cult of Failure grew from an earnest and admirable effort to strip the stigma from failure, to make it seem less permanent or discouraging, and more like just another bump in the road to triumph. But the model has been over-extended. Failure should be no more celebrated than feared. Failure is a great teacher; the point is not merely to meet great teachers, but to learn from them. Failure, likewise, is not a mark of accomplishment or rite of passage, but an opportunity to adapt, apply lessons, and try again.

When we talk about failure, we are really talking about learning. Turning a failure into a lesson requires a combination of opportunity, support, and attitude–not just on the part of the aspirant, but also the community in which the person or organization tests its hypotheses. Leaders, organizations, and even systems–from the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley to the universities training the next generation of thinkers and doers–have a part to play in uniting failure with opportunity and pushing the experiments forward.

Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations and has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant.