We Tried to Come Up With a Clever Headline For This Post, But Failed. Should We Celebrate That?

Posted on Dec 10, 2012 | 2 Comments

As far as Peter Drucker was concerned, fear of failure was a staple of modern life. The “psychological pressures and emotional traumas of the rat race” have only intensified over the past few decades, and the obsession of parents with getting their children on the right educational path underscores, as Drucker put it in Managing in the Next Society, “how much the fear of failure has already permeated the knowledge society.”

In such an environment, perhaps it was inevitable that one way we would seek to shield ourselves from the fear was to convince ourselves that failure is our friend—that it makes us far wiser, thanks to the mistakes from which we learn.

This is particularly applicable to Silicon Valley, home to so many startup successes and so many more startup failures. But New Republic writer Lydia DePillis, for one, isn’t buying it. She says one of the biggest problems with the idea that failure makes you stronger is that it’s simply not true. “Google’s venture capital arm ran the numbers, and found that entrepreneurs whose first business did well had a 29% chance of success on their second, compared to a 16% success rate for people who’d failed their the first time around,” DePillis writes. “Sure, it’s possible to extract value from failure. But most of it is just wasted energy.”

We suspect Drucker would largely have agreed with this. It’s not that he saw failure as an inexcusable and useless calamity. Indeed, as we’ve pointed out, Drucker felt that a company failure often indicated an unnoticed change in the world, a change that was also an opportunity. As we’ve also noted, Drucker believed that “nobody learns except by making mistakes.”

That said, Drucker didn’t consider failure to be the ideal teacher. This was a lesson he learned as a youngster while watching legendary pianist Artur Schnabel teach a young pupil by sitting down to the piano to play a piece himself. “I suddenly perceived that I myself would always learn by looking for performance,” Drucker recalled in his memoir Adventures of a Bystander. “I suddenly realized that the right method, at least for me, was to look for the thing that worked and for the people who perform. I realized that I, at least, do not learn from mistakes. I have to learn from successes.”

DePillis notes in her article that there are “a zillion ways to fail, and resolving to avoid the mistake that did you in the first time doesn’t shield you from making another one.” Drucker, for his part, wrote, “I believe in one of Martin Buber’s early books—the saying of the wise rabbi of the first century: ‘The Good Lord has so created Man that everyone can make every conceivable mistake on his own. Don’t ever try to learn from other people’s mistakes. Learn what other people do right.’”

What do you think: Is failure overrated as a teacher?


  1. Maverick18
    December 14, 2012

    One may learn a great deal from failure, but a record of failure is worthless on a resume, loan application or prospectus for venture capitalists.

  2. Richard Straub
    December 15, 2012

    For me there are several aspects to be taken into account – I believe leaning from experience is vital. This is what human beings do all the time. The question is if this should be done in a more proactive manner. David Kolb’s classic “Experiential Learning” makes this point – learning is a cyclical process: concrete experience – reflective observation – abstract conceptualization – active experimentation – concrete experience and so on. It is clear that this process applies to successful and less successful experiences. Learning from failure means also gradually improving ideas and concepts by experimenting in a iterative fashion. However, not enough of this is done consciously and systematically. Nespresso would not have been such a planetary success story, had they not gone through many learning iterations before they had what turned out to be the best solution…
    The other point I would make – for important missions you would like to have someone in charge who is known for his/her successes rather than for failures. Napoleon was looking for his generals not so much based on competencies (as we would probably do it today) – his main criteria was whether they had good luck (“Fortune”). However, history shows that even this is not a reliable predictor of future success – Napoleon is good example of this….


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