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Learning to fail

We were taught at a young age that failure is bad. We were told to avoid failure at all cost. Follow the rules, don’t deviate from the script and successful will come. The American education system reinforces this idea and emphasizes these values in the classroom. But we live in a world where gradual change can kill you. To survive, we need to reinvent constantly ourselves. We need to learn to fail, which is hard to do when it goes against everything that we’ve been told.
If we trace this back to the beginning, it’s clear that the American education system has ingrained a fear of failure in all who passed through the doors of schools. I’m not referring to the curriculum or learning critical skills such as writing, oral communication or math, this isn’t the problem. The problem is that teachers and students are penalized for taking risks. Teachers have little room for experimentation because there is a vast amount of curriculum to cover, from which they cannot deviate. And so they do as they are told, building their lesson plans based on what is mandated. Similarly, students are encouraged to take the safer path. The premise is that “easier” classes lead to better grades, which means getting access to better schools, which can lead to a better job and better future.
But this is far from the truth of reality. Today, every industry is being disrupted. We live in an economy of ideas, a place where a majority of tasks and jobs are being automated. The safer thing to do is to create a new job. The challenge is that to create new opportunities, we need to deviate from social norms. We need to try something new and different, something that people might not necessarily agree with us.
If you look at any startup, you’ll notice that they tend to pivot many times before finding the right market fit. The reality is that most products and companies will fail. According to Steve Blank, no business plan survives its first contact with the brand. In other words, businesses should test and validate their hypotheses before building.
But this approach of trial and error challenges our cultural norms. No one wants to be associated with failure, and people tend to be remembered by their project, whether it was a failure or a success. And no one wants to put failure on his or her resume. We want to fit cultural norms, we want to be a part of the broader social group, and we want to meet society’s standard of success. This is because, as Peter Thiel said, courage is in far shorter supply than genius. This idea of being courageous and embracing failure is evident in the character traits of the most successful entrepreneurs who, more often than not, are disagreeable and challenging. They don’t require approval from our society to move ahead with their disruptive ideas. They learn to fail.


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