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