The Fascination Of Failure

Yesterday, whilst browsing through a copy of the National Geographic in a waiting room, I came across an article on the role of failure in exploration (registration required).

This included (my emphasis in bold):

For most explorers, only one failure really matters: not coming back alive. For the rest of us, such tragic ends can capture the imagination more than success. Robert Falcon Scott, who died with his team after reaching the South Pole in 1912, is hailed as a hero in Britain. Australians are moved by a disastrous 19th-century south-to-north expedition that ended in death for its team leaders. These tales stick with us for the same reason our own failures do: “We remember our failures because we’re still analyzing them,” Ballard says. Success, on the other hand, “is quickly passed.” And too much success can lead to overconfidence—which in turn can lead to failure…

The business world, especially the high-tech realm with its rapid-fire start-ups and burnouts, already understands the value of negative results, if they are low-cost and noncatastrophic. To encourage entrepreneurship, the Netherlands-based ABN AMRO Bank started an Institute of Brilliant Failures. Eli Lilly and Company, the pharmaceutical giant, began throwing “R&D-focused outcome celebrations”—failure parties—two decades ago to honor data gleaned from trials for drugs that didn’t work. (Some 90 percent of all such trials fail.) Some foundations have even begun requiring grantees to report failures as well as successes.

It’s an interesting observation that failures tend to linger in the memory whilst successes can quickly disappear from view or get taken for granted, which is quite strange really and can easily lead to misbalanced assessments.

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