Virgin on Business: Here’s to the Underachievers

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

As a means of measuring who was most successful at being a success, Americans have compiled endless lists of the biggest, fastest, richest, winningest and best, and handed out endless awards to confirm those who had achieved it.

But success is looking a bit shopworn lately. Threadbare and dusty. It hasn’t completely lost its allure, but it has definitely lost its tinge of cool. 

The real action today is in failure.

“Fail fast, fail often” isn’t just a book title. It’s a mantra reflecting a prevailing mindset in business. Not only is there no longer no shame in being associated with failure; in some circles, it’s positively celebrated.

The prime circle in which failure is flourishing is tech, where a résumé is considered incomplete unless it has some association with noble and expensive ventures that went from de future to defunct. You’re nobody until somebody gives you a few million dollars on a product that didn’t ship or a service that wasn’t much of one.

Failure is admired and encouraged. When was the last time you attended some sort of business speech or conference presentation that did not include the inspirational reassurance that baseball players who fail seven of 10 times at the plate go to the Hall of Fame?

It’s not that failure was hitherto treated as something to be avoided at all costs, a single encounter with which would end all hope of being healthy, wealthy and wise (mainly the first two). We’ve long been told of the character-building nature of adversity, of the need to pay your dues, of the educational value of a degree from the School of Hard Knocks and learning from one’s mistakes.

But if you could avoid all that turmoil and discomfort, all that wasted time, effort and money, why wouldn’t you?
That’s a question perhaps better posed to those who are underwriting all these well-meant but ultimately unsuccessful ventures. It’s not that the funders don’t understand risk, or that nothing in business, least of all longevity, is guaranteed. They’ve seen the data on small-business survival rates. They know how some sectors, such as biotech with its long and expensive development times, are particularly prone to long and expensive disappointments. Nor are serial failures a new phenomenon. In his book The Dawn of Innovation, historian Charles Morris describes firearms maker Samuel Colt as “that walking bonfire of other people’s money.”

One wonders if the venture capitalists and others don’t feel an occasional twinge of resentment at the cavalier attitudes toward the money they’re shelling out. “Fail fast” is sometimes appended with the phrase “move on,” and there always seems to be another pocket to move on and tap; sometimes, it’s the same wallet.

It’s easy enough to dismiss this mindset as exclusive to tech, which as a whole has succeeded in spite of its best efforts. The problem is what happens if that attitude spreads. “We just ran out of runway” has been employed in the figurative sense to describe a company whose idea didn’t fly. It’s not a phrase you want to hear in its literal application.

Similarly, “the operation was a success but the patient died” is not a reassuring evaluation of a physician’s abilities. Indeed, the world abounds with occupations in which a philosophy of “fail fast, fail often, move on” is not likely to garner success or praise.

But if failure is going to be worn like a badge of honor, Washington is a better place than most to do so because few states are as accomplished at high-profile failures: Galloping Gertie, the I-90 floating bridge, WPPSS (and the ensuing multibillion-dollar municipal bond default), Washington Mutual, the Mariners (most years), and Bertha, the non-tunneling machine.

That’s an enviable record, and we can build on it. Probably will, too. But we’ll also want some legitimate successes as well, lest we not be given more opportunities to fail by those less impressed by, enlightened about or forgiving of our propensity to screw up. 

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.

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