Failure is not an option. It's a necessity.

Playing it safe is no longer a career option for most Americans, if it ever was. And that's good news, in one sense: the downside of job security is that it dulls your appetite for risk, and your ability to learn from failure. 


To punish failure is yet another way to encourage mediocrity.   Michael Eisner

Playing it safe is no longer a career option for most Americans, if it ever was. And that's good news, in one sense: the downside of job security is that it dulls your appetite for risk, and your ability to learn from failure. 

What's the Big Idea? 
Type success into the search box at Amazon and you get 125,000+ book results. Titles include: The Success System that Never Fails, Mastery of Self for Wealth Power Success (commas, anyone?), The Law of Success, and The Secret Code of Success. These titles sell success as a unified state of being – a kind of earthly Nirvana – that, once attained, can never be lost.

But the biographies and explicit testimony of some undeniably successful* people paint a very different picture. Ask actor Edward Norton, Virgin CEO Richard Branson, Energy Guru T. Boone Pickens, or former Disney CEO Michael Eisner about success and they’ll tell you it goes hand in hand with grave risk, and sometimes with episodic failure. 

A recent, large-scale study by William Sahlman, an advisor at several large venture capital firms and a Harvard Business School professor of Entrepreneurial Management, reveals that the failure rate of professional venture firms over the past 15 years has been around 60%, up from 35% in the 1980s. In other words, more high-potential ventures fail than succeed. The good news, says Sahlman, is that the economy and culture of the United States encourage entrepreneurial risk-taking. Failure doesn’t mean “Game over.” It means “Try again, with experience.”

What’s the Significance?

Our first 350 years or so of national development were defined by the pioneering (read entrepreneurial) spirit of explorers, inventors, bold leaders of one stripe or another. There were many cataclysmic failures along their roads to success. After the struggles of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression, the post-World War II boom ushered in a period of relative stability in the United States, which lasted for about half a century.

Now, the ground is once again shifting under our feet. Economic uncertainty and the globalization of industry have made short work of traditional career pathways – the large, stable corporation, the 9 to 5 job, the reliable pension waiting (along with the gold watch) at the end of several decades of tireless service. Recent grads find themselves entering a job market driven by small, fast-moving companies that reward employees who can think on their feet.

These volatile times call for a heroic mindset, one that recognizes risk and takes bold action anyway. One that embraces failure, learns from mistakes, and starts over again. It’s not about being fearless – it’s about welcoming risk and committing to big ideas, because that’s how the plot of an individual life – or the life of a nation – advances.

WEIGH IN!: What wisdom have you gained from personal or professional disasters, fiascos, and washouts? 

*For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that we’re defining 'success' in more or less material terms: an impressive, long-term, overall upwardly mobile run in some industry or other, characterized by innovation and accompanied by fame, respect, or notoriety.  

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Is this why time speeds up as we age?

We take fewer mental pictures per second.

(MPH Photos/giphy/yShutterstock/Big Think)
Mind & Brain
  • Recent memories run in our brains like sped-up old movies.
  • In childhood, we capture images in our memory much more quickly.
  • The complexities of grownup neural pathways are no match for the direct routes of young brains.
Keep reading Show less

Trauma in childhood leads to empathy in adulthood

It's not just a case of "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Mind & Brain

  • A new study suggests children who endure trauma grow up to be adults with more empathy than others.
  • The effect is not universal, however. Only one kind of empathy was greatly effected.
  • The study may lead to further investigations into how people cope with trauma and lead to new ways to help victims bounce back.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.