Fear of Failure

An ongoing preoccupation of many governments, but perhaps most especially this one, has been the fostering of innovation and the training of the next generation of entrepreneurs. The positioning of tertiary education under Business, Innovation & Skills is one obvious sign of this focus and so, as I noted before, is the Government’s investment in (and messaging around) ‘Tech City‘. There are innovative firms sprouting around Old Street but if the Government wants to keep directly supporting growth there then it faces a fundamental problem: start-ups are a risky business, but the kinds of safeguards that you put in place to ensure that, say, welfare money is ‘well-spent’ are wholly inappropriate for fast-moving start-ups. So instead of full-steam-ahead it’s more like bureaucracy ahoy.

There’s a good reason that governments don’t generally get involved in start-ups: they often get it wrong. Given that 50% of start-ups will go under within 3 years, and the rate at which start-ups can blow through cash, it’s hard to see how government can play a useful role in Tech City as a provider of capital (as opposed to infrastructure). The issue is not that we should be wary of investing in start-ups, but that we need to recognise their high failure rate and look to ways of ensuring that those failures are contained.

Looking across the pond, there is a model that appears to work very well indeed. It is the world of professional Venture Capital and “it’s a crazy idea but it just might work” 20-somethings working from a bedsit where more money is likely won and lost in a month than Tech City will see in 10 if it continues to be structured around government financing. Critically, in Silicon Valley and New York, the firms that fail do so quickly and (relatively) painlessly, while those that succeed reward two groups: the early-stage investors who will have suffered losses on 95% of their other investments, and the ‘kids’ who had the vision and drive in the first place.

How does Failure relate to Education?

It is in the context of business failure that I want to draw your attention to an interesting post on 3QuarksDaily on how to educate the next Steve Jobs. Or Mark Zuckerberg. Or Bill Gates. What all of these founders of multi-billion dollar firms have in common is that they were surprisingly well-served by a system that allowed them to fail — in the sense that they didn’t complete degrees — but didn’t punish them for doing so by denying them access to capital. Steve Jobs famously flunked out of Reed but took a typography class along the way that made its way into the Mac’s handling of fonts — something it still does better than any other system. Bill Gates went off to found Microsoft. And Zuckerberg went West to grow Facebook.

It’s not that these things never happen in Britain — Open Street Map grew out of a Masters project at UCL, for instance. But generally speaking, education in Britain appears to presume that: 1) a system in which students fail to acquire the set of skills required to walk straight into a job is broken; and 2) one way to avoid such failure is to focus the student’s studies as early as possible. The idea seems to be that it is good to focus a student’s studies on the things that they are ‘good at’ while cutting out the extraneous things at which they struggle or in which they are not immediately interested.

The issue here is that the evidence from those three founders — and others — seems to suggest that they will fail at a lot of things (especially academically), but that they use that failure as a springboard to better things. And that, as part of that process of failure (or renunciation of the status quo, if you prefer), these creative people are building resilience by building breadth: it is often “the story of creative epiphanies springing from the exposure to a wide range of ideas, a wide range of disciplines”[1]. Unfortunately, my sense is that students in Britain are so worried about failing at their studies (which, these days, amounts to not getting a 2:1) that they choose easy or obvious options that avoid breadth, inadvertently shutting down future opportunities… and future innovations.

For instance, if you haven’t studied Maths since GCSE (roughly, Grade 10 or 11 depending on what part of the world you live in), then it is pretty much guaranteed that you’re not going to pick it up at university ‘just because’. This division starts at the secondary level with A-levels (the last two years of secondary education), but I think it’s greatest impact is at the university level: English undergrads complete their course of study in just 3 years, and they do so having probably achieved more in their specialty than their North American equivalents will in 4 years.

What they will not have done is to dabble in a host of disciplines that are never taught to high school students. In my time as an undergrad in America I studied the following: Russian, French literature, the Tokugawa shogunate, literary theory, psychology, geology, basic HTML, Unix scripting, and postmodernism. Some of those I excelled in, some of them I merely neglected to fail, but it didn’t matter. As far as my university was concerned it was part of the process of exploration. For me, the signal strength of the American approach is that I learned the rudiments of computer programming while studying literature.

In Britain, even a fraction of those changes would have required me to withdraw and reapply, or at the very least to repeat a year of study! My sense is that British universities are finally catching up to the power of breadth as the basis for resilience and adaptability: UCL has just launched a liberal arts degree and King’s College London is following suit with its own version. UCL’s implementation seems well-designed to force students out of their comfort zone and into areas where they may well fail to get a ‘good grade’. What I would hope though is that, ultimately, students will recover from these initial encounters with unfamiliar fields and excel in subsequent years by seeing connections where no one else does. Computational analysis of English? Why not! Mathematical modelling of cities. Sure! A linguistic analysis of computer languages? Go for it.

Rewarding Failure

My sense is that there are several things that we in Britain are either missing entirely, or are not supporting strongly enough: 1) a culture that rewards risk-taking throughout the education system (by students, teachers, and administrators); 2) an infrastructure geared to supporting risk in ways that are not seriously detrimental to those taking it on (many more UK start-ups are funded by debt than by equity [2]); and 3) a society that sees failure as a learning experience rather than a permanent stain on one’s record. The intersection of these three lacunae creates an aversion to risk that keeps domestically-oriented start-ups from growing as they could. Here are some simple steps that I think could easily begin to set us on a better path:

  1. The Liberal Arts & Science programmes being launched by Russell Group universities suggest a realisation that we need to stretch our students more by moving them outside their areas of comfort. I would like to see this taken much, much further.
  2. Many employers use the degree classification as a short-cut to evaluating students’ ability with the net effect that just a few points can separate graduates who are hired from those who are effectively unemployable. It would be great to see employers demanding a full transcript from applicants, asking graduates what they did to broaden and challenge themselves beyond their main area of study (even if it impacted their overall classification).
  3. We in academia also need to do more to challenge students — especially ones who are currently skipping even the most basic of quantitative methods — constructively during their course of study by forcing them to engage with things that they find ‘hard’ or ‘irrelevant’ (hopefully, where we know better), and there are a number of interesting initiatives to discuss… but that will be another post.

What do you think?

1. This is from the 3 Quarks Daily piece.

2. This is from a conversation with a lawyer specialising in I.P. issues.