The Cost of Commodifying Failure
With start-up culture’s rise in popularity, insight and transparency around the conditions that produce successful innovations are talked about more than ever. One of the more popular trends we have adopted from the startup world is the notion of ‘embracing failure.’ Fail fast. Fail often. Failure is not only an option, it’s often a celebrated outcome. Speaking as an entrepreneur who works with other entrepreneurs, I can tell you that the concept of failure is often outright glorified. The question on my mind is: have we taken it too far? Have we glorified it so much that we have begun using our changing relationship with it as a sales tactic? Are we unintentionally commodifying failure at the cost of actually learning something from it?
Innovation is often a result of failure. Instead of getting our intended results, we may get results that not only completely disrupt our understanding of something, but also allow us an opportunity to innovate that space. A naval officer named Richard Jones, for example, accidentally discovered the Slinky in this way. He was experimenting with tension springs to develop a meter for monitoring power on naval battleships when he knocked over a shelf of the springs and watched as they effortlessly ‘walked’ down the shelf instead of simply falling off. He may not have known it in that moment, in the experimentation phase of a completely different invention, but he ended up discovering one of the most iconic toys there is. Failure is a known side effect of experimentation, whether in the process or the final result. Richard Jones could have easily thrown his arms up in the air and seen this incident simply as a mistake or minor setback. I would have. He did not, and thank goodness. Slinkys are rad. Good inventors and innovators know that without experimentation and failure we would not learn. In one way or another we all understand that. So then what’s the problem?
As everyday consumers we are bombarded with messaging that hits us on both a deeply personal level, and over time on a larger behavioural level within our society or community. What and how we buy things is integral to the way we make sense of the world and our place in it. Buying has become a form of self-expression. We buy the basics we need to survive but we also buy things that will send signals to others about the type of person we are. Brands know this. They also know we desperately crave to fit in somewhere and be normal to someone. Often because of this, brands use fear-based campaigns. Whether it is worrying about our child’s health or how we measure up to current beauty standards, brands manipulate these fears into buying habits all the time. We all have a fear of failure especially when we compare ourselves to those around us. So what happens when we are afraid of failure while simultaneously carrying it around as a badge of honour? How does that even happen?
So what happens when we are afraid of failure while simultaneously carrying it around as a badge of honour?
As start-up culture became trendy, most of the viral success stories were of failures turned successes; mistakes turned advancements. The most innovative, inventive, creative, and desirable jobs were coming out of the startup world. This is still true. We gobble up the stories of young twenty-something CEOs who ride their skateboards into work, wear t-shirts in the office, and buy rounds of craft beer for employees on Fridays. Then we hear stories of investors not taking entrepreneurs seriously until they’ve had at least three failures under their belt. This uncovering of failure as a tool for success was and still is a point of fascination. Writers, speakers, and consultants alike realized that many of these conditions could be studied and recreated to affect workplace culture for the better.
It is at this very crucial point that we shift from natural progress to commodification. Books, talks, and complex thinking is imitated and condensed over and over again until we are left with only the poster in place of a great masterpiece. Tip sheets and cheat sheets; top ten lists and short how-to ebooks. Over time the difference between poster and masterpiece begins to matter to us less because these “Coles Notes” [Cliff’s Notes in the US] get us to the results faster. A huge wave of entrepreneurs and consultants were born from this shortcut culture. This wave built businesses entirely around the idea of selling their ‘hacks’ for this kind of freer, more flexible, sometimes more meaningful life, to other budding entrepreneurs and businesses.
We’ve already bought into the notion that failure is a badge of honour but we are still terrified of failing ourselves.
In my world, as an entrepreneur, the most typical example I come across looks something like this: “I struggled for years to build up my social media following. Don’t go through the struggle I did. Learn from my failures. Buy my ebook and get 10,000 new Twitter followers.” Sometimes it’s subtler. How often have you Googled something along the lines of “how to make money making YouTube videos?” or, “how to become social media famous?” and been hit with a ton of content titled as answers to those very questions? The content that exists in this space is not altogether useless or lacking in good ideas. I am very simply arguing that in commodifying a complex notion like failure we are at risk of losing out on some incredibly important lessons. As entrepreneurs, we see this sales messaging often because we are the best market for it. We’ve already bought into the notion that failure is a badge of honour but we are still terrified of failing ourselves. This content relies on both our fear and acceptance of failure. We get to share in the emotional experience of failure but with the guaranteed result of success. How do we know this? Well, the good ones tend to have numerous testimonials backing up their claims.
Let’s take a moment to consider things outside of the “failure community”, as it were. Let’s look away from the sparkle and sheen of progress and address something glaringly obvious to many. As with most things, failure has privilege attached to it and that privilege has racial and gender qualifiers. We were all reminded of this with the release of the recent study conducted by Columbia Business School and the University of Pennsylvania. Not only did they find that women only received about 2% of overall venture capital funding in 2016, but that women received prevention-driven questions as supposed to the men who received promotion-driven questions — “how long will it take you to break even?” vs. “how do you plan to monetize?”. This does not seem problematic until you see the numbers. Entrepreneurs who received prevention-driven questions (predominantly women) raised an average of $2.3 million, while the entrepreneurs who received promotions-driven questions (predominantly men) raised an average of $16.8 million. So while we prance around flashing our failure badges it’s important to remember not everyone is even afforded this “progress.” If anything, this should tell you something about the commodification of complex ideas and their ability to distract from real progress and real lessons.
As with most things, failure has privilege attached to it and that privilege has racial and gender qualifiers.
I am not here to shame anyone. I do not believe it is helpful to silence anyone in a discussion just because of the histories they’ve inherited. We are all just trying to make our dreams come true and make money doing it.
I am more concerned with the larger societal trend from which these selling mechanisms are born and how they can quickly turn problematic.
Participating in the commodification of failure has a price. The price is missing out on important lessons — lessons in resilience, how to make failure-informed change, and how to reach beyond the limitations of our own thinking. We can pat ourselves on the back for accepting failure as an important step in innovating but pay money to avoid experiencing it ourselves. Not everything should be productized and commoditized. We risk losing important steps in the learning process when we do this with ideas. Following a recipe does not teach you how to bake, it gives you an indication or example of how baking can work. Following many recipes and seeing trends and principles appear through repetition, modification, successes, and failures, that’s how you learn how to bake. My argument is not to stop the practice of selling ideas altogether. It has an important, albeit tricky, role in our experience of the world. My argument is for us to be more conscious of the impact it has when we reduce complex ideas to top ten lists and e-books filled with cheat sheets and hacks. Intuition and resilience cannot be bought, and to distract from that is to place less importance on them.
We pat ourselves on the back for accepting failure as an important step in innovating but pay money to avoid experiencing it ourselves.
I ask my fellow entrepreneurs and consultants to think about being educators first and salespeople second. Instead of using your failures to highlight your success and sell shortcuts, create content or products that help people learn the important lessons. That helps others find resilience through their failures instead of giving them the VIP pass to skip over that part altogether. My business argument to you is this: people are looking for your tools because they want to be educated. They want to learn how to do something for themselves. That is the need you can fill. People are tired of being sold to. If anything we have an aversion to it because of how it’s betrayed countless times. So I challenge you to rethink your marketing strategies, motivational talks, and digital content. Ask yourself: am I using failure only as a way of highlighting my success and making myself a more desirable choice? Am I really helping people deal with their fear of failure by making them think they skipped over that part? Am I really improving business practices by diluting and commodifying complex and important ideas? As we all learned during high school, the Coles Notes are an excellent study guide, but not a sufficient substitute for reading the actual book. As someone who is selling, should you not be accountable for influencing people to believe otherwise?
e180 is a social business from Montreal that seeks to unlock human greatness by helping people learn from each other. We are the inventors of braindates — intentional knowledge sharing conversations between people, face-to-face. Since 2011, e180 has helped thousands of humans in harnessing the potential of the people around them, and we won’t stop until we reach millions.