The privilege of failure

“Failures are a portal of discovery.” Winston Churchill once noted.

45 years later since Sir Churchill opined on benefits of disappointment, failing forward has become trendy: tech titans, entrepreneurs, finance professionals, academics, and politicians are highlighting the value in screwing up.

When I was visiting a school in Botswana last month, a fifth-grade teacher was telling his students about how Einstein numerous unsuccessful endeavors were the bedrock of his breakthroughs.

According to beloved blogger and inspirational speaker Seth Godin, “the person who fails the most, wins the most.”

Advocates of sage failure often point to cell theory as a prime metaphor – wherean individuals builds resiliency and strength after being subjected to periodic stress. In the case of failing, through myriad miseries and heartbreaks, perseverance and concentration are heightened, direction is centered, one’s scope of growth expands, and eventually the fear of failure is annihilated.

For all its promise, the promoters of failure overlook its limits. The theory of learning by letdown has its positives – the ability to rebound from a slip up, the opportunity to take chances, and encouraging curiosity and creativity without being hampered by one faulty decision.

But the virtues gained from defeat are a luxury never afforded to the socioeconomically and ethnically disadvantaged.

The opportunity to gain wisdoms from failure is rarely bestowed to those disproportionately punished by society for their missteps, if extended in the first place.

As entrepreneur and innovator Kipp Bradford notes, “Not everyone “gets” to fail.”

“If you are a student of color you have to be perfect. Think about the standardized test that plays an over-sized role in determining an accelerated or remedial course. You better not fail. Think about the rates of suspension and expulsion. You better not fail. Think about use of force incidents on campuses. You better not fail.”

And if you don’t have a rich parent to bribe your way into college. You definitely better not fail.

And in our quest to normalize failure, we ignore that its impact is far from ubiquitously beneficial. In fact, failure can often exacerbate an individual’s shortcomings. A student already academically challenged can lose all hope of catching up with constant setbacks, the socially obtuse can feel even more marginalized with further embarrassment, and even the slightest slip up by a minority can reinforce a negative stereotype or bias towards them. In practice, the margin of error varies greatly for different cohorts.

In a wonderful essay that inspired this article, When Privilege is a Failure  2nd grade teacher Courtney Snears recounts witnessing a Muslim student say, “I feel that I have to show that I am not a terrorist and I have to show that I am not a bad person by being extra kind to people. By being extra honest. By making sure that I never do a mistake because that mistake could be pinpointed against me, you know, proving that I’m a quote unquote ‘terrorist.”

Ms. Snears recounts the countless examples of a subjective discipline system where lower income and minorities were reprimanded for their setbacks while high income and/or Caucasian students’ shortcomings were chalked up as a pivotal part of one’s maturation process.

But even for those given the opportunity to learn from their failure, the lack of resources impedes real progress.

Chronicling the innovation culture at its college, the Stanford Daily highlighted students with a successful businesses. They discovered those students given no strings attached  capital from family were more likely to have a successful start-up (roughly nine out of ten new businesses fail). Those who didn’t ended their ambitions abruptly and forgoed riskier decisions even if their business models were more marketable.

The opportunity to soar after setback, due to a strong financial network, isn’t confined to Silicon Valley.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, a prominent advocate of failing up, regularly discusses his time as a CEO where he rewarded employees with a $50 gift card for putting forth an idea that failed. The former mayor of San Francisco attributes his belief in this philosophy because of his mother’s support of him when they discovered he was dyslexic and struggling in school.

But the Governor’s story left like that would ignore an important component to his success and strong support network: a wonderful mother with the time and ability to give immense attention to her child, friends who gave him jobs in the wine industry despite his zero qualifications, and wealthy family members able to invest in his first few businesses.

Even if one is to walk away from a situation with a broader understanding, they are unable to forge ahead if they don’t have the backing needed to seek or be given second chances. Internship opportunities and career coaches are not knocking on the doors of black and brown households.

The reality is this – failure is a trampoline for some, a safety net that bounces you up after falling. But for others, failure is like walking on a tightrope 10,000 feet above ground where even the slightest flubs result in a fatal fall.

If we want failure to be the vehicle for growth, we must create more equitable opportunities to take risks, and for those risks to outweigh the consequences. Allowing those at the bottom of the food chain to gain more than one might lose. Further, as the likes of Mr. Snears argue, we must acknowledge that risk-taking is universally applauded in theory, but only rewarded to the powerful and connected. And if we can’t change, we must discontinue our obsession with failing-up.

Because it will only harm those who needs to build resiliency mechanisms the most. Following the same cell theory, that same body, subjected to chronic stress, begins to break down gradually losing its ability to effectively counter and rebound from negative forces.

Prevailing is about balance – a sensible learning curve to broaden one’s perspective, room to fall that humbles us, and a sound support network to aid us carry on through difficult times. If we cannot provide those intangibles to those in need, then regardless of our belief on success, we’ve ultimately failed.