An education system that celebrates failure

In the worlds of tech and entrepreneurship, you hear a lot about fostering a “culture of innovation” - getting comfortable with making mistakes, celebrating failure and using it as a launchpad to bigger and better things. It’s the lean startup methodology. You don’t wait for perfection. You get out there with a minimum viable product and you keep iterating. If necessary, you “pivot”. As Paul Schoemaker puts it in his fantastic article on, failure is the foundation of innovation. Yet, most of us grow up with a dangerously unhealthy attitude towards it. Dangerous because it stifles creativity. Dangerous because it's a paralysing fear and so embedded that it follows you throughout your adult life.

It takes courage to share unfinished work with your colleagues, to throw out a hypothesis that’s yet to be tested, to chime in with a suggestion that might just fall flat. It takes courage to allow yourself to be this vulnerable, especially after years and years of hiding behind the defence of “perfectionism”. How do we make sure the next generation of students learn these lessons early on? How do we build an education system that allows room for mistakes, one that teaches you to iterate, to pivot? One that dispels the stigma and nurtures confidence and courage?

Hopefully things have changed since I was in school but I don't think we ever had a serious discussion about "mistakes". At least, not until the first week of the MBA and that unforgettable introduction to the Honda (B) case. As every MBA student knows, there's always a "(B) case" - a not-so-rosy version of events, a jumble of mishaps hiding behind the glossy exterior of the "(A) case" (a curious product of post-rationalisation). It's not as elegant but it reflects the reality of things. It allows room for mistakes and acknowledges their part in the story.

And on that note, here's a quote I just love and one I wish I’d come across years ago. Conan O’Brien reflecting on failure during his 2000 Harvard commencement speech:

I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.
I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet, every failure was freeing, and today I'm as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good.
So, that's what I wish for all of you: the bad as well as the good. Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over.