Are We Teaching Our Kids to Fail?

In case you’re not up on Greek mythology, Daedalus -- a master craftsman who created the Labyrinth -- made two sets of wings so he and his son Icarus could escape Crete. He made them out of feathers and wax.

Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, but Icarus was having a little too much fun soaring high in the sky, the wax melted, and that was that. Bye bye Icarus. The morale of the story is that hubris is bad, and indeed it is.

But with a better wing design, instead of a Greek tragedy, you’d have the story of the Wright Brothers.

Somewhere between Icarus and everyday folk who work for a living and take few risks in life is a sweet spot where entrepreneurs thrive. At least that’s the theory. But is that what we’re really teaching our kids, our young up-and-comers? I think our messages are a lot more mixed than that these days.

As an arrogant young engineer, my managers said I needed to get some failures under my belt. Having always thought business was about winning, I had no idea what they were talking about and didn’t give it another thought.

Then, after rolling the dice a few times the law of averages eventually caught up with me. A few years and disasters later, I finally understood what my bosses meant. Failure wasn’t the goal, just a means to learn some important lessons and maybe take my oversized ego down a notch or two.

Fast forward to today. According to the popular entrepreneurial wisdom of the day, failure is a good thing. You can’t visit a business site without that message coming across loud and clear. The notion is practically romanticized. If I didn’t know any better I would think that’s actually the goal.

But that’s not true, now is it? The goal of a business is to succeed, not fail. You’re supposed to avoid pitfalls, not aim at them. And the fallout of failure is to be minimized, right? I mean, people lose their jobs and investors lose their capital when businesses fail, right?

Granted, there are lessons to be learned. One lesson is that it won’t kill you so it’s not to be feared. Another is that, if you examine what went wrong, you can avoid it next time. And of course, a third is that you’re not infallible so park the hubris.

Indeed, failure can impart strength, wisdom and humility. You and I may know that, albeit after the fact. We’ve been through it all. But what if we hadn’t? What if we were just starting out? If we spent our days reading today’s popular self-help-style business literature would we get the nuance that failure isn’t the goal but a means to learn some lessons?

And what about the corporate world where we pay top executives big bucks whether they succeed or not?

If you’re a CEO who takes enormous risks, fails, and walks away with an enormous pay package, does that actually make you stronger and wiser and diminish your hubris? No, no, and not one bit. And what message do you think that sends to everyone else about failure and personal responsibility?

If that message comes across as a bit muddled, wait, it gets better. 

Our schools are practically breeding personal accountability and achievement out of the species. Today, everybody’s supposed to be equal. We can’t risk giving anyone an award or trophy without potentially damaging some poor soul’s self-esteem. Besides, that wouldn’t be inclusive. It might offend.

And yet, the vast majority of companies are meritocracies, as they should be. We work in brutally competitive global markets. They may be elastic at a macro level, but every transaction is still a zero-sum game. We compete for everything -- jobs, sales, ad dollars, eyeballs, clicks -- you name it, we compete for it. 

How are our kids, our young up-and-comers, supposed to reconcile those mixed messages?

Lately, I’m thinking we should just teach them to be like Icarus. That, to achieve their dreams they have to reach for the stars, take risks, go for it. As Robert Browning said, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” That’s what my folks taught me. And isn’t that what entrepreneurship in the real world is all about?

What’s wrong with teaching them to strive to be the best, to want to be special, to dream of accomplishing great things, to compete to win? After all, they’ll learn their lessons down the road. They’ll experience the inevitable failures and gain a little humility, just as we all did.

Instead, I’m afraid the messages we’re sending them can be interpreted several different ways: It’s good to fail, it’s cool to be average, or it doesn’t make one bit of difference either way. I’m not sure which is worse, but I do know none of it’s good.