Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Fear of Failure, the Failure to Allow Failure

This article was originally published on Aug 1st, 2008 at

When I was in the fourth grade, I had a friend named Andy. I walked to school with him every day. Back then we had neighborhood schools, so we were allowed to walk home at lunch time to enjoy a home made meal. People might say that times were different then, that people were different, but I don´t believe we were so much different than we are now. I don´t believe that the nature of human beings has changed, but perhaps the attitudes reflected in our society have.

Andy would pick me up in the mornings and we´d walk to school together, then at noon break we´d walk together as far as we could until we had to separate to go to our respective homes. After lunch, I often times walked back to school alone. Andy often failed to make it back to school on time. He was tardy quite often during the course of the year. As a result, when the final grades came out and we were passed to the next grade, Andy was held back. He failed to move on that year and would be forced to spend an extra year in school.

I doubt very much a similar circumstance could occur in today´s society. Even if it did, it is not likely one of today´s schools would fail Andy and hold him back. We as a society seem to have developed this fear of failure, as if to say that failure is bad and should not be tolerated. It is a fear that is unwarranted, in my opinion. Failure can and should be a good thing if one learns from it and deals with it accordingly. As it turns out, Andy was hardly ever tardy again after that year. The importance of punctuality was a lesson he learned well. To this day Andy is very conscientious of the time and is certain to keep any appointment he makes. Had he not been allowed to fail in the fourth grade, had he not learned his lesson back then, there is every possibility that he may have learned it in a far more significant way when he got older, such as by not finding employment or getting fired from a job. As it is, things turned out fine, which they usually do.

Today´s students are never held back. They hardly ever fail. This is because educators have become afraid that failing a child may hurt his self esteem. They seem to fear that the child will learn the wrong kind of lesson and turn into a psycho killer or something if one should fail. More likely the child will learn that the behavior or non behavior he engaged in will lead to failure and therefore change the undesired behavior. Unfortunately, this type of attitude has crept up from the educational system and leached into our nation´s economic system.

Recently in the news there´s been several bailout stories including Bear Stearns, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. There´s all kinds of fears surrounding what would happen should these institutions fail. Politicians and those in power seem to believe that should these institutions fail the world would come to an end, or at least the economy would come crashing down around us. Perhaps it would, but perhaps not. We will never know because these behemoths, these privately owned publicly traded companies, will be or have been bailed out using our money, the money the hard working middle class of this great nation have labored hard for. The extremely wealthy caretakers and the investors who should be lamenting their poor judgment will benefit while the working class foots the bill, with interest that could keep our progeny in debt for generations, all because of fear of failure.

Now, I don´t claim to know what would happen if these institution failed like some financial psychics might, but I can tell you some things that will or will not happen because of the bailout. New opportunities for small businesses to step in and take up the slack, for innovation to occur within the home mortgage industry and for competition to develop and thrive in that industry will not present itself. CEOs and others in charge of these huge companies will not have to be held accountable for their mistakes. They will not lose their fortunes because of their bad decisions. They will not learn from their mistakes and so they are likely to make the same mistakes again. They will learn that failure is no big deal and that they will be rewarded by their friends in Washington DC and given billions of stolen tax dollars to play with when they err. They will basically come to understand that when an institution becomes more or less a government sanctioned monopoly fiscal responsibility and common sense are unnecessary to keep the company afloat.

Failure should be a learning experience. It is what helps make a man or woman understand why things are done a certain way and not another. It helps people understand the importance of certain facets of human existence. When there is a system built up that fails to allow failure, than the system itself is doomed to eventually fail, for those lessons are not learned by the people on top and so they will continue to make the same mistakes that lead to failure. It is like the accountant who insists that two plus two is five. Until he learns that two plus two is four, he will continue to fail to keep accurate books and will one day have to learn reality the hard way. One day, the piper must be paid and I´m not so sure I want to be around when that day comes.

Failure should not be feared. It is a fear that stems from uncertainty of an unknown. Yet hasn´t mankind survived these kinds of situations before? Haven´t we shown our resilience and our resolution in the past? When a house burns down, certainly it´s a tragedy and we wonder what will happen next, but we keep on living and we rebuild. Whenever disaster strikes, we pull ourselves up and rebuild. The same can happen if our institutions fail. It might take some time to get over the initial shock and assess the situation, but eventually the industry would rebuild itself and life would move forward, perhaps even improve. In the case of the above mentioned institutions, fear won out and those in power refused to allow failure. Perhaps in the future we can prove ourselves a little bit braver.

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