The Disingenuous Art of Celebrating Failure

There are two things that profoundly annoy me as I interact with the start-up ecosystem. The first, that everyone should be an entrepreneur and the second, that somehow failure is a gift from God – your path to success. Both couldn’t be further from the truth and for now, I’ll address the latter.

There are conferences, such as FailCon (con should be a hint as to what to expect), “for start-up founders to learn from and prepare for failure”. The organisers even invite you to host one yourself. It’s the ultimate win-win because if no one comes to your absurd conference, you’ve actually won, by failing.

Ironically, the organisers actually triumphed in 2009 by selling out – go figure, they succeeded at promoting failure to others. It would have been bizarre had it not been in Silicon Valley.

There is, of course, the Fail Festival, “a celebration of failure as a mark of leadership, innovation, and risk-taking in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in scaling ideas from pilots to global programs” complete with “crash and burn parties”.

Failure – the aftermath

Watching founders fail is like watching teens jump off a building aiming at a swimming pool and landing on their back on concrete, something most rational people wouldn’t even contemplate, let alone actually attempt. But they at least have some sort of excuse – “their limbic system, which controls emotion, motivation and behaviour that is tied to survival, becomes hyperactive during adolescence, overruling reasoning that occurs in the prefrontal cortex” (Pittsburg Post-Gazette) – in other words, they have a moment of total stupidity and that’s what it sounds like when you promote the celebration of failure.

What we never see in those videos is the aftermath – the deaths, paralysis, permanent injuries, ruined lives, medical bills and distraught parents, friends and loved ones. When you promote the celebration of failure without acknowledging the risks and the pain and consequences to others, you are doing a severe injustice to novice and influenced first-time founders that absorb all the one-liners that gurus and other #experts spurt out in their cab rides to the next gig.

Watching #them is like consuming sugar. It gives you an instantaneous and short-lived high level of gratification that lasts until you leave that motivational conference. Much like sugar, it leads to dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens – an area associated with motivation and reward. That’s why the majority (99%) of people that attend these conferences go back to work all pumped up yet are back to their routine by lunchtime.

The problem with one-liners, such as the celebration of failure, is that they are generalised and are rarely placed in context, instead thrown around a room as if to impress on others the simplicity of “success”. If in doubt, just think to yourself: would you want doctors or pilots to fail fast and furiously? That pilot on your next flight? I didn’t think so – nice to know that pilots need at least 1,000-1,500 hours under their belts before becoming a commercial pilot.

I know, some of you are shaking your heads as I seem to miss the point that its [now] all about learning from your mistakes and altering our culture of risk adverseness and public/private stigma of failure. I know.

My point is simple: its disingenuous and a disservice to the new generation of entrepreneurs and to everyone else to generally promote failure. One thing is to promote “failing fast” in creating ever better iterations of a product. However, the failure of an iteration is much different than a catastrophic failure of a business.

The Silicon Valley PR machine

Celebrating failure emerged in 2010/11 as a concept devised by the Silicon Valley PR machine to counteract the irrationality underlying the ponzi scheme like investment strategy the “ecosystem” had adopted.

“We are, make no mistake … in the middle of an enormous multivariate kind of Ponzi scheme”
— Chamath Palihapitiya Oct 2018 [me in Jan 2016]

In a way, this culture of celebrating failure and flagrant disdain of legislation, regulation and users’ rights, interpreted presently by many as plain greed and disregard for all and everything, has led to a growing voice of concern at what Silicon Valley has come to represent.

There is still geographically, an incredibly large agglomeration of talent, though Google’s “Do first, Ask Forgiveness later” strategy, “14 years of Mark Zuckerberg saying sorry, not sorry”, Travis Kalanick’s journey from “world’s most valuable” to “world’s most dysfunctional” startup and the Theranos and Cambridge Analytica scandals, should be more than enough of a warning at what cheerleading past idiocies will lead to.

In a not so surprising turn-around of opinion, we now hear a lot of Americans praising the EU’s continuous efforts to stem the attack on their citizen’s rights, albeit sometimes a little misguided and as a consequence, going further by suggesting that what a company like Facebook needs is regulation. That’s a big shift but when your democracy is under fire and you wake up to Donald Trump as President of the “free world”, something has to change.

Europe was always viewed by many as culturally risk adverse whilst the United States was regarded as the opposite, embracing failure and experimentation, assuming that by default one lacked the innovation that the other had in abundance. This flawed reasoning doesn’t take into account the importance of knowledge whilst underestimating the relevance of history. Whilst history gives us experience and context, knowledge gives us the tools to move forward.

So, let’s not embrace the celebration of failure, instead promote education, learning, knowledge and wisdom. If instead of failing fast, we take the slower route, taking the time to listen, learn and innovate responsibly. Sure, execute fast, but be patient and create a strategy for the future.

With AI rearing its (possibly ugly) head around the corner, there has never been a more important time to reflect on how we got here, what we accomplished but also what we had to give up.