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Failure's Virtues | Wired Cola

Failure's Virtues

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I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work. - Thomas Alva Edison.

I have been thinking about the utility of failure, especially its importance to institutional quality.

Failure and Democracy

Churchill's beloved least-worst system is, I'll claim, indifferent at best in selecting good leadership. It's not obviously a strength of the system, and the usual obsession with electoral reformers is to make the results of elections better conform to the will of as many voters as possible.

That's the wrong part of such a system to care about. Democracies and dictatorships (of all stripes) seem to have their highs and lows when it comes to getting leaders. It's possible the very best governors are scions in hereditary lines, since they are unique in being groomed for leadership from birth, and without requiring any skill at the somewhat unrelated vocation of campaigning for election.

But when the leadership in a functional democracy has failed, the leaders go away. Sometimes it takes a few years for the election cycle to roll around, sometimes it requires the nudge of term limits (because even in democracies, incumbency effects can be strong), and sometimes insiders push a leader out of power for fear of facing the future wrath of voters, but at all levels there are practical mechanisms for ejecting utterly awful candidates and incumbents.

In dictatorships, bad leaders are often bad leaders for life. Worse, good leaders often stay long past their sell-by date, and become bad leaders for reasons of running out of ideas, changing circumstances, corruption by power, or even senility.

If you think of democracy as a mechanism for making bad leaders leave, it starts to make sense.

Failure and Economics

Certain overly-large entities aside, market capitalism is no good at incubating success. But its virtue is that ventures fail. There can be reasons other than inherent long-term unprofitability for businesses to fail (and sometimes unprofitable businesses outlast sensible explanations), but bad businesses almost always fail eventually, even if that failure takes the form of selling out and silently disappearing into the purchasing company.

By contrast, organizations without a well-defined failure condition (like being unable to make payroll) are vulnerable to outlasting their original purpose, or surviving in spite of their success or failure to achieve stated goals.

Government programs are notoriously hard to eliminate. Part of that is because there is no natural, even hostile pressure for them to maintain viability. Their existence is not tied directly to results, in most cases.

I have seen a couple of cases of this in post-secondary student government, where funding is virtually guaranteed and tied directly to student enrollment rates. Combined with minimal democratic involvement due to an indifferent and only lightly-affected student population (especially at two-year colleges), you have a formula for some very weird outcomes. (and also here, and this sad litany of the SFU Student Society's zombie pub "business").

Final Thoughts

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. – Winston Churchill

I've found that as much as being clever or good is a means to success, a lot of my success has been down to patient endurance. Failure is rarely final: if you learn and revise, you can fail better the next time. If you keep improving, and you keep trying, you'll probably succeed.

Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I attack. - Ferdinand Foch

It's a trivial example, but in bike racing I remember that some of my most memorable successes arrived in races where, at some point, I felt terrible. We're talking within moments of abandoning the race at mid-distance and being utterly at the end of my rope, barely able to turn the pedals. And then when the final sprint arrived, I won. It turned out all the other riders felt even worse! The secret is that in many enterprises, your competitors are failing as bad or worse than you. Never forget that success can sometimes be a matter of returning to the fray for one more try.

Failure is a vital mechanism. Learn from it. Study it. Embrace failure. Succeed.


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