Tag Archives: failure

Week in Public Organizations, 25May2009


Time has gotten away from me.  Foreign intel, veteran astronauts, leadership in the federal sector, ROTC on campus, learning through failure, and the effectiveness of EI training.  These were some of the compelling stories in the last week:

US increasingly relies on foreign intel cooperation
Bolden named NASA administrator
Federal workers value strong leadership
Downs argues for ROTC on campus
Failure (sometimes) leads to learning
EI training proven effective

Failure (sometimes) leads to learning

Students often ask me why we review colossal failures more than successes; this is one reason:

Eminence is the one universal precondition to being a commencement speaker, and an implied (often explicit) theme of the speeches is, “Here lieth the path to success and happiness.” There are two problems with this formula. The first is that any narrative of success is bound to be at least a little bit dull. The second is that successful people are almost never able to pinpoint what it was that made them so. Take Warren Buffet. Here’s a guy who must get asked five times a day how he became the most successful investor of his era. His answers—”Reinvest your profits,” “Limit what you borrow,” etc.—are no different from what any fool could tell you. Buffet isn’t being cagey. He doesn’t know. Success is a wonderful thing, but it tends not to be the sort of experience that we learn from. We enjoy it; perhaps we even deserve it. But we don’t acquire wisdom from it.

Failure, on the other hand, is Harvard, Yale, and the University of Heidelberg rolled into one. We may not all possess the self-knowledge to absorb failure’s lessons, just as we may not all graduate with an education to go along with our diplomas. But people typically have a much easier time recounting, in often vivid detail, where they screwed up in life than they do explaining what they did right. Indeed, memoirs of spectacular failure have become a cottage industry—so much so that authors are sometimes tempted to embellish their narratives to make their stories even grimmer than they really are. Stories about life’s wrong turns are sometimes exaggerated but seldom dull.

Indeed.  Another practical reason I don’t use more success stories is that things running well don’t sell newspapers.