Too Legit to Quit

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Several years
ago I sat as a consultant in a business meeting with executives
and project team members at a Fortune 100 company. Everyone in
the audience knew it was a risky project. The project manager
repeatedly urged, “Failure is not an option!” Lacking the common
sense to keep my mouth shut, I finally spoke up. “Failure is always
an option,” I said. “In fact, it’s the default option. The only
way we will avoid failure is to plan and manage our activities
carefully and hope that things go smoothly.” I didn’t exactly
endear myself to the project manager, but I think nearly everyone
else in the room could see that I had a good point.

In a universe
governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which roughly says
that the natural state of things tends toward disorder, we should
not expect orderly results to fall from the sky as a matter of
course. Failure is always an option. Alternatives to this reasonable
perspective are (1) to abandon teleology altogether and say, “There
is no failure, there is also no success, it’s all meaningless,”
or (2) to reverse completely and claim that everything is success,
like Voltaire’s Candide saying, “This is the best of all possible
worlds.” I’ll avoid either of those absurd extremes and go with
the wisdom of Crosby, Stills, and Nash from Southern Cross:
“We never failed to fail, it was the easiest thing to do.” Failure
is always an option, unless we plan and manage to achieve success.
And luck (a.k.a. providence, chaos, fate) plays a part, too, but
the point is that failure is always an option, and in fact, is
a necessary part of life.

The reality
of failure stands in contrast to the current anti-failure sentiment
in America. The anti-failure view reverts to “Failure is not an
option” based on an underlying belief that mankind, through collective
action, can overcome all evils and create Utopia. Whether modern
advocates of “Failure is not an option” arrive there by some variation
on Marxist Utopianism, by the millennialist
Utopianism of the progressive movement
, or by some other path,
the result is the same. They believe that failure can be eliminated
if we all keep repeating ‘Failure is not an option” and using
coercive State power to rescue failures that gain political favor.

Behind every
Utopian scheme there are three groups of advocates. The first
group, the masterminds, come up with a way to enrich themselves
at the expense of others using a slick message about how it’s
good for everyone. The second group, the beneficiaries, are advocates
who rally behind the scam because they stand to benefit, although
usually at a level lower than the masterminds. The third group,
the dupes, are well-intentioned but misled folks who believe the
lies of the masterminds and support the scheme, not realizing
it is a scam. In a democracy, all the masterminds have to do is
get over 50% of the population into these 3 groups (or, lacking
popular support, co-opt the government by bringing officials into
the group of beneficiaries), and they can force the entire nation
to be part of their scheme.

There’s no
clearer example of an Utopian anti-failure scam than the bailout
of financial institutions because they are Too Big to Fail.
The masterminds and beneficiaries of this current scheme begin
with the Wall Street elite and extend to the web of politicians,
bureaucrats, and lobbyists who are connected to them. And while
many ordinary Americans have been duped and their fears stoked
by the masterminds’ promising to rescue them, the bailouts passed
despite wide popular opposition. Everyone understands that the
purported logic of Too Big to Fail is that such a large
failure would be devastating to the economy. While the fear-mongers
make this premise sound reasonable, its absurdity is readily apparent.

The economic
impact of a large corporation’s collapse is highly visible, and
so it’s easy to miss the greater damage that the under-performing
company is doing by remaining in business. A corporation fails
because it is harming the economy. It fails to attain profitability
because it lacks the necessary planning and management for the
market environment, and therefore it is not offering products
or services that buyers demand at a profit-generating price. As
a result, it is wasting resources, causing losses to shareholders,
and putting customers and suppliers at risk. Why prolong the damage?
It’s like having a marauding, man-eating grizzly bear break into
your home and start attacking your family. You have a gun, but
you refuse to shoot the bear because a dead grizzly carcass would
be too heavy to carry out of the living room. (That’s not an analogy
we can stretch too far, but it makes the point for equivalent
absurdity.) A failing company will do more damage alive than dead.
Bailing out the dying company compounds the damage by diverting
resources from other, more productive enterprises to the laggard.

If allowed
to operate, market forces will get the failure over with and start
the recovery process. The market will dictate that companies and
individuals must operate on the principles that failure is always
an option, that they must plan and manage toward success, and
that sometimes luck can intervene for better or worse. When we
move away from those principles we create a culture in which the
pain of failure is spread to everyone and the benefits of success
are taken away from those who work for it, and the inevitable
result is mediocrity.

Despite the
alarmist rhetoric of the masterminds behind the Utopian scheme,
Too Big to Fail is a recipe for ever more failure. Whatever
you subsidize, you get more of. If you bail out the biggest failures,
you’ll get bigger, more spectacular failures. “Failure is not
an option” leads to more failure.

I was also
reminded of anti-failure Utopianism recently when I heard about
the No-Fail Grading system being used at many schools around the
nation. This approach to education eliminates failing grades and
allows an indefinite opportunity for a student to correct failing
or incomplete work. No-Fail Grading is fundamentally flawed in
principle. The superficial logic is that when students fail, their
self-esteem suffers and they lose motivation to strive for excellence.
We should all agree that it’s hurtful and counter-productive to
tell a student, “You are a failure (that is, your worth is diminished).”
By contrast, it can be very constructive to tell a student in
various ways, “Your efforts failed to achieve the desired result.”
That kind of feedback is essential to personal growth and character
development. But neglecting to make that distinction between personal
worth and outcomes is not even the most insidious part of No-Fail
Grading. Even more twisted is the true impact it has on students.
It treats them as if they are fragile and stupid and their efforts
don’t matter, which is the surest way to lower their self-esteem
and motivation. It treats them as if they are stupid by expecting
that a student who is failing by every observable measure will
be foolish enough to believe a blathering school administrator
who says, “No, there’s no such thing as failure here.” It treats
them as if they can’t handle the truth and says they are Too
Fragile to Fail. It treats them as if their efforts don’t
matter by removing the psychological and tangible benefits of
planning and managing to achieve success. In practice, the inevitable
result of “Failure is not an option” is more failure.

No-Fail Grading
is a new label for the perversity that is endemic to many parts
of the coercive education industry. Many years ago in Indianapolis,
my company participated in a work-study program for high school
students. At an appreciation lunch for the employers, I was seated
between a teacher from one school and a guidance counselor from
another. The teacher asked the counselor for advice: she had a
12th-grade boy in her class who couldn’t read. As a result, he
would inevitably fail the written final exam in her class and
thereby fall short of the required credits and be unable to graduate
with his peers in a month. The student’s parents, she was certain,
would be very upset at her for holding the boy back. What should
she do? Utterly without shame, the guidance counselor and teacher,
joined by other educators at the table, brainstormed for a while
on how to pass the student without “compromising her standards.”
The final consensus was to give him the final exam orally. They
were helping him graduate without learning to read, but
at least he didn’t fail. He’s Too "You-Know" to totally,
like "Whatever."

I’m not suggesting
that all teachers are uncaring or indifferent to outcomes. Quite
the opposite. I was personally acquainted with the guidance counselor
sitting next to me. She was a warm and genuinely caring person.
But as a beneficiary of the system, she had given up on trying
to fix it. She recognized that the masterminds of this scheme,
a vast cadre of union execs, academics, bureaucrats, politicians
and lobbyists, were beyond her influence, and so she would keep
collecting her paycheck and hopefully doing some good along the
way without bucking the system. Meanwhile, the majority of Americans
have been duped into believing that without coercive education,
the country would fall apart.

No-Fail Grading
shouldn’t surprise us, though. There are three constants in the
American coercive education industry: (1) the quality of outcomes
continues to decline, (2) the size of the bureaucracy and the
cost per student keep rising, and (3) the establishment continually
comes up with a new-and-improved recycling of the previous new-and-improved
that fails every time. And that’s the real point – the coercive
education industry wants to be graded on a No-Fail system. They
want to convince us they are Too Important to Fail. No
matter how badly the schools are performing despite the bloated
budgets and micro-managing bureaucrats, we should just give them
more time and money to fix it. Failure is not an option, and so
we must never say the truth: that they are failing.

Failure is
always an option. Corporations are not Too Big to Fail.
Students are not Too Fragile to Fail. The coercive education
industry is not Too Important to Fail. So what is the alternative?
How about a lesson from rapper MC Hammer: Too Legit to Quit.
It’s a song about success through hard work.

May
20, 2009

Myron Weber
[send him mail] is a management
and technology consultant who dabbles in psychology, economics,
theology, autism research, and taekwondo (among other things). Follow
him at http://twitter.com/myronweber.

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