3/5: thinking about thinking; Failing is no fun at all

We all know these type quotes being shared in our various feeds and timelines.

Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm– Winston Churchill

I usually only get mildly annoyed, but this particular one on failure really pissed me off. If it was even Churchill saying this, no doubt we are missing some context. Because I don’t really believe good old Winston would tell us to just fail all the time, automatically achieving success as a result. I hate these simplifications. They cut too many corners. They insult my intelligence and experience.

Frontrunners fail!

Companies that embrace failure are regarded as examples to us all. We love a good story of how things went wrong. These stories are comforting; if these shiny companies (burning away millions!) have the guts to take risks, maybe I dare too. And when failure makes them stronger, so will I!

We want this for ourselves, and for our children. Children who can’t fail suffer from a fixed mindset and that is a problem. Our offspring must master failing or they’ll never become the creative, agile citizens of the new age. Yep.

I seriously think this frame is damaging. Working quietly and meticulously step by step on realizing a well thought out plan is not en vogue. Instead the guru’s of failure with their big stories enchant us. We are blinded by the bold and cool and don’t notice the careful and quiet anymore.

The losers fail

We love failure, but not all of it. Reading about failing government systems doesn’t inspire us. And the story of an alcoholic that didn’t overcome his addiction and wrote a book about it, but just died alone makes us sad.

We cherry-pick our failure stories.

The good stories are the ones that have a happy ending. We accept failure, but only when there is success in the end. A big hairy goal achieved! We love to look back and recognize the mistakes and celebrate how well these mistakes served the goal in the end. Failure! Hurray!

And that is where all goes wrong. It’s true that failure often precedes success. And our optimistic quotes-sharers simply flip that around: just fail, and success will come your way. (Happy clapping!)

But in reality that’s bullshit. And dangerous bullshit too.

Without a goal, failure is just a phenomenon that will continue to happen. It may even become a goal in itself. And that is no good. Failure makes us sad, and discouraged. It hurts in our heads. And frequent failure leaves us blunted and indifferent. And once failure became easy, nothing is at stake anymore. Demanding people to fail is mean and destructive. And unnatural.

Being happy

People want to succeed, to improve their knowledge and skill. People don’t want to take too big risks. That used to be a good thing. (Or all vicious prehistoric animals would have eaten us.) We still resent taking risks, and can accept a certain level of risk when it hurts least. The promise of working towards a relevant goal eases that pain.

I love the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He said the best things about when people are happy and productive in work. He calls it flow.

You’re in flow when:

  • …you know what your are working towards
  • … you know what to do
  • … you know how to do it
  • … you know how well you are doing

And:

  • When what you do is interesting
  • You have to use your skills
  • And you are not distracted

Your own limits, your own interests, your own skills. No impotence, no failure. Just determined steps towards reaching a (self chosen) goal that is set. Failing cannot be a goal, practicing and improving towards a goal is.

So dear quote-sharers: can we please push the celebrate failure frame back into it’s box? Because if we keep on telling failure is a good thing, every fail may become acceptable. Than nothing matters anymore and the world doesn’t get any better. We don’t need failure. We need goals. Let’s look for goals, and let’s be gentle. With ourselves, with our children and our co-workers. (And with the money of our investors.)

Failure is no guarantee for success. There are no guarantees. All you can do is work hard in achieving your goals. – Every mum in the world

This is blog 3 in a series of 5 stories about about thinking: 

  1. The balance between thinking and making
  2. About boredom and action
  3. Failing is no fun at all
  4. Why you need knowledge, skills and that other thing
  5. What I can teach you (spoiler: nothing)