Be Thankful for Our Ability to Fail

Michael Schaus

The late Steve Jobs once explained that “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

This is clearly the mentality of a successful entrepreneur.

Part of this mindset is the ability to see the world, and the marketplace, with fresh eyes — to spot new ways of doing things and then exploit those opportunities while the rest of the world is still oblivious.

But, there’s another — possibly more important — aspect of entrepreneurship: The willingness to risk failure.

And as a society, we should be thankful we live in a country where the freedom to fail actually exists. It’s a freedom that is often underappreciated, if not outright disdained.

Grade schools across the nation have been waging war on the freedom to fail for several decades. Little League athletes often receive trophies regardless of performance, poor grades don’t prohibit students from advancing to the next level and graduation rates seem more important to school administrators than the actual quality of the education that graduates receive.

And the war on failure isn’t limited only to public education.

Young adults increasingly expect taxpayers to protect them from failure by providing “free” college, subsidized healthcare and artificially high minimum wages.

The corporate world too seems anxious to eliminate failure. Bailouts have been given to banks, insurance companies and automobile manufacture. The “green energy” industry is so awash with taxpayer subsidies, it’s almost unbelievable that any solar company fails at all.

Indeed, as a society, we seem to be on a mission to wipe out the risk of failure wherever we find it.

It’s a misguided crusade.

Failure is always an essential part of the learning process. Wiping it out would ultimately mean wiping out learning itself. Free men and women, risking failure — if necessary, time and time again — have driven human progress throughout human history.

The widespread prosperity increasingly enveloping the world is their gift to mankind.

American entrepreneurs’ unstated motto has long been: “Fail quickly, and fail often.” Nine out of ten new startups don’t make it past their first year, but a lot of learning is going on. Even the most successful entrepreneurs in history — Rockefeller, Ford, Jobs — at times faced bankruptcy or insolvency.

Moreover, when entrepreneurs finally do succeed with major innovations, the subsequent disruption of markets and industries may well mean the failure of less innovative competitors.

Indeed, the freedom to try and to fail is the very engine of progress.

Steve Jobs saw an opportunity to create something new in the computing world. But his first attempt to market and sell his innovation gained little attention outside of wonky tech-circles.

That failure taught him an important lesson: To succeed, he needed to capture prospective buyers’ imagination.

Then, during his first helming of Apple, Jobs failed again: Famously arrogant, he increasingly lost credibility with his own board of directors. Effectively fired, he went off and started his own firm, NeXT — which struggled. Yet Apple, too, was soon struggling. Eventually, after several CEO changes, it recognized it needed Jobs’ vision.

So Jobs, now more mature, was allowed back in Apple’s saddle. The rest is history.

Only a bit over a decade ago the first iPhone was sold, and in breakneck change, an entire “app” industry arose, employing millions of tech-savvy workers. Massive market disruption followed, creating many millionaires overnight, bankrupting others and yet bringing wondrous realities to millions of consumers worldwide.

Such magic is only possible because failure remains a respected component of America’s economic freedom. Silicon Valley, for example, has for years been characterized by its unique attitude: “Innovate or die.”

Compare that to the public sector, where deficits can be run in perpetuity, performance does not correlate with a drop in revenue and “failure” is treated with taxpayer-funded bailouts and a continuation of the status quo.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, we should be thankful for the entrepreneurial spirit that has made America the land of prosperity and opportunity. But it is also important to recognize that this spirit only exists because we live in a society where each one of us has — as we reach for our dreams — the freedom to stumble and fall.

The choice is clear: What is America to become — a realm where everyone lives in “safe spaces,” protected from harsh reality by ever-proliferating “participation” trophies?

Or are we to remain a land where reality is king — and innovators like Steve Jobs still walk the land?

Michael Schaus is communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This commentary was originally published by Nevada Business Magazine.