In 2008, we rescued the banks. It 2009, we pledged $900 billion to rescue the rest of the economy. Last month, we extended jobless benefits to 99 weeks to rescue the unemployed. Call it bailouts. Call it stimulus. Call it emergency aid. America seems to be losing its stomach for failure, and that’s very bad news if we have any hope for a robust economic recovery.
Not that we should be surprised by our growing aversion to failure. After all, the richer we get, the more we have to lose. Almost every wealthy nation tries to guarantee a high standard of living for its people through extensive wealth redistribution and welfare. That America has been slower to follow suit may have something to do with our history. Our immigrant ancestors knew much of failure. Hardship was the beginning of their opportunity, and it’s taken us a while to forget that.
I am not saying people used to like failure more than we do today. Winston Churchill probably hated every one of the bumps that made his life’s road so inspiring. But he also knew that winning and losing are inseparable. “Success,” he said, “is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” It’s not fun to fail, but it’s inevitable. Try as we might, we can’t get rid of failure in our lives unless we all agree to never get out of bed (and even that’s not without risk). The sooner you get used to dealing with things going wrong, the sooner you can get on with the business of finding ways to make things go right.
But is failure just a necessary evil? A way to build character and that’s it? One reason I think we’re so eager to remove failure from our lives is that we miss its biggest benefit.
What do Warren Buffett, Tom Brokaw, and Dr. Harold Varmus, winner of a Nobel Prize in medicine, have in common? As Sue Shellenbarger points out, each was turned away by his top choice for college or graduate school. Buffet’s rejection at Harvard Business School led him to Columbia, where he met two professors who shaped his investing philosophy. Brokaw’s rejection from Harvard College was a wake-up call that helped him get more serious about his studies and career. After two rejections from Harvard’s medical school, Dr. Varmus took a detour to pursue graduate studies in literature before finally settling in at Columbia’s medical school. All agree that their early failures were essential to their later success. Why? Because failure opened their eyes to things they couldn’t otherwise see.
Learning is the big, underrated benefit of failure. And learning is what all of us need to be doing a lot of, especially now. Nobody is born with an instruction manual attached to his ear. Whether we’re fit to be teachers or preachers or chemists or salesmen requires discovery, and discovery is possible only when we try things with an uncertain result. Success is fun, but failure is a better teacher because the pain sharpens our focus. My dream school turned me down. Why? What does this mean? Where do I go from here?
Right now, nearly 15 million unemployed Americans need to figure out what’s next. A great place to start would be to think about what went wrong last time. Do I need a new set of more marketable skills? Do I need to look for a new industry or field? The problem with our current economic policy is that we’re anesthetizing our failures with bailouts and stimulus and emergency aid, all of which leave us insensible to what’s really gone wrong. Solving a problem begins with recognizing that one exists. For many of us, that means feeling a bit more discomfort than our bailouts and stimulus and emergency aid have allowed.
Abraham Lincoln, a man well-acquainted with failure, once said, “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” Our problem today isn’t that we are content with our failures, but that we are trying to ignore them. That’s a sure way to get a world without Buffetts and Brokaws and Lincolns. A worse place than America has been, and a worse place than it could be.
Brian Brenberg is assistant professor of business and economics at The King’s College in New York City.