“Dare to Fail”? BALONEY!!!

Randy D. Bosch   © 2010

“Fail Fast”.  “Fail Often to Succeed”.  “Dare to Fail”.   “Embrace Failure”. 

How often have you heard or read about that from “success” and “innovation” leaders in the past decade?   Ad nauseum comes to mind!  To put it as kindly and respectfully as possible –and I respect a lot of the work of quite a number of those whose oeuvre includes, (but thankfully is not limited to) such advocacy:


The belief that “failure” is not only “OK” but REQUIRED on the path to success in any endeavor has been rammed into the American psyche so hard and for so long through clever marketing that American’s believe failure is their duty – on the way to “success” of course!

What then?  Forget training wheels for youngsters learning to ride bikes?  Scratch “Driver’s Education”?  No ropes for tyro mountaineers?  Get rid of those Bunny Slopes?  Forget Basic Training?  “Be All You Can Be” – by repetitive failures?  Don’t waste time practicing,  just do it?  After all, a faster path to failure must lead to success?  Yes, a little hyperbole, but not far from the “Failure is Great” training being heralded as the road to success.

The concept that “failure” is OK, helpful, REQUIRED to succeed has been so over-hyped, so mutated that it is now taught as a mantra for Americans: “Fail Fast”.  “Fail Often to Succeed”  “Failure is Required for Success” “Failure is a Sacrifice on the Road to Victory” is…


We’re told that Edison “failed” thousands of times before he succeeded with the incandescent lamp he had envisioned.  We’re told of pioneers in vaccines, airplanes, weapons, high-tech, genetics, novels, art – you name it – that experienced so many failures on their path to “Eureka!”, therefore we must also accept, nay, even STRIVE FOR FAILURE!  No wonder we seem conditioned for, and our leaders proclaim that we are not exceptional.  That, you guessed it, is…


Yes, ABSOLUTELY, failures happen as part of the normal process of innovation, development, of too many aspects of LIFE!  Life still does end in death, you know.  We are best advised — we need — to be prepared, able to see signs of impending failure, have plans to prevent it, acknowledge it, train to avoid it, limit or mitigate its effects, repent of mistakes, cope with failures when they occur, recover from defeats and loss – even when not really predictable (Black Swans as defined by Nassem Nicholas Taleb).  We do that through purchase of insurance, redundancy in systems when we can afford it (or cannot afford to be without it), teamwork, “safety nets”, and the like.  Research & development, and field application, in innovative, never-been-done-before arenas can anticipate some efforts that go radically off course, into the ditch.

Experiment, Test, Study, Iterate   

Thomas A. Edison is held up as the hero of failure.  A Genius!  Well, read what he really said,

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

That’s what experiments, tests, and studies are – working through iterations on the way to a solution.

Sometimes you “get it right” the first time – at times an incredible find, often just expedient mediocrity, the “minimum required” to meet deadline, budget or “lowest common denominator” expectations.  Usually, long, hard work and sweat is involved – with fear and trepidation, major risks, expenses, sacrifices involved along a torturous journey to the right answer.

The great Italian Renaissance artist Raphael drew scores of studies of human hand positions before he chose the best ones to use for each character in a painting.  Hundreds of trees, scads of heads, gazillions of animal limbs and heads.  Those weren’t failures, they were studies, tests, part of the refinement process. 

Michelangelo did the same, going so far as being able to see the treasure buried in a block of marble deemed too flawed by others to even use for art (the rock was a failure at being a rock!).  As a result, because of a life of experimenting up to that point, he created the extraordinary sculpture of


Similarly, architects have run through piles of sketch tracing paper – calling it “trace” or “sketch” or “flimsy” or “bumwad” – to test and refine again and again…and again… until the best design solution appeared – and sometimes going back to a lower layer to refine again and again!  Failure?  NO!  Design is an iterative process of people refining layers – like Michelangelo chipped off layers of stone, like Raphael studied dozens of hands, like authors run through many drafts of their texts, like Ansel Adams making scores of exposures and dozens of darkroom proofs – before they identify their BEST ANSWER to the problem at hand. 

Being a success in life, work and community, even being a renaissance person, is not counting coup on your failures (“look at all my scars, I must be on the road to success!), it is seeking knowledge, learning technique, receiving honest criticism, learning from what didn’t work, modeling success, experimenting, testing, studying, sacrificing, modeling,  iterating – and reiterating – the whole hard way through to success!  Will you fail?  Perhaps, but don’t insist on it being part of your journey – be prepared to deal with it and make plans to successfully attack the problems you choose or are compelled to face.

Yes, “Not failure, but low aim, is the crime.” (James Russell Lowell)

True, “Never give up, never give up, never give up”. (Winston Churchill)

Absolutely, “We never lose, but sometimes the clock runs out on us”.  (Vince Lombardi)

Definitely, “It’s not that you fall down, but that you get up again”. (Dozens of folks!)

Always, Edison, I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  BUT….

Never, “Plan to Fail”!!!

About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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8 Responses to “Dare to Fail”? BALONEY!!!

  1. Roger Von Oech says:

    Excellent post with many good points. Throughout my career, I have used my fear of failure on ambitious projects as a strong motivator to make sure I had done all the things I could to ensure success. My fear of failure made me more likely to consider things that would cause my project to fail– and then I would work hard to make sure they didn’t happen.

    • randysrules says:

      Roger, Thanks for the kind comment and the excellent point! “Fear of failure” properly used is a tool, a motivator, to help assure success!
      All the best!

  2. George Adams says:

    Excellent thoughts, Randy. Acceptance of failure under the guise of “ensuring” success, is intellectually dishonest and just plain stupid. In my field, Classical music, you study all the eventualities before hand so that the chance or failure is greatly diminished. Acceptance of failure leads to unemployment!

  3. Paul Sloane says:

    Nice energetic polemic Randy – but it is full of so many contradictions that it fails to convince. However it is OK to fail. Just think of this misguided outburst as a step on the road to success!

    • randysrules says:

      Thanks for the chuckle, Paul! The currently deemed bright insistance – now almost a command – that repeated failure is a necessary experience on the road to “success” may simply be a full pendulum swing reaction to the last few decades conceit that to give all students “A” for effort grades so that failure or even underachieving doesn’t forever stain their vision of themselves. All the best as we fail forward?!?

  4. Todd says:

    I guess it’s a little bit in how you define “failure.” Agree that some of the recent motivational stories and context around Edison (and Lincoln) have stretched the meaning of the word. What’s the difference between a failure and misstep (or even a lesson for that matter)? But isn’t one of the points from these stories that we learn much more from doing than from planning? It’s an encouragement to get in the game and play instead staying on the sidelines and only jumping in when you know you can score. You make some very thought-provoking arguments. Thanks. One of the “failure” questions I’ve been struggling with is poor performance on team. How do you know when it’s a training issue versus a hiring issue?

    • randysrules says:

      Todd, Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that the points of the stories are an encouragement, it is the “packaging” that sometimes goes astray. Your concerns are shared, and point out how we all need to continually consider the issues before us!

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