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Off For A Week, And A Note on Failure


Posting will be light the next week due to extreme laziness caused by the holiday I’m going to be taking in Goa. Every year I take a small break, and always end up wishing it could be longer. Some year it will be as long as I want!

I want to leave you with an article that touches home. Megan McArdle writes in at Bloomberg, tell us to let our kids fail.

If you can’t afford to risk anything less than perfection at the age of 15, then for heaven’s sake, when is going to be the right time? When you’re ready to splash out on an edgy assisted-living facility?

The willingness to fail has been largely absent from Indian middle class lives. I’ve dealt with the fear of failure so much that when it’s not there, I start getting worried.

In class 12 I was told that if I didn’t get into a coaching class I would never get a decent “rank” in CET. It would’ve stretched our budget at the time (Rs. 5,500 per month for coaching in Physics, Chemistry and Maths). And I wasn’t considered quality enough to get in. And if you weren’t in, you failed already, they told me. I ended up getting the 64th rank in the state, among 50,000 students then. You don’t fail because you haven’t met some bullshit precondition.

My resume is horribly imperfect. I have started companies, sold some, done nothing for a couple years, and have shifted from a tech guy to a finance person. I didn’t take a job I was offered in the US because I wanted to stay in India and start my own company. Of many things that I’ve done, when I did them, people told me I would be a wretched failure. It didn’t scare me off, even though I did fail and stumble many times.

Oh yes I’ve failed. I’ve taken big losses on trades because I couldn’t take the smaller losses. I’ve lost software projects because I didn’t bid fast enough, or low enough. I’ve failed and quit a company I started. It doesn’t matter that I did; I hold myself to no lower esteem because I have failed in the past.

I am by no measure an epitome of success. But I get by. And I’ve gotten by far longer than my own excel sheets predicted. But the fear of failure is all around. People are afraid to fail, to veer away from a known tried and tested path. They’re afraid that they won’t get a monthly salary, and will not dip into their savings to do what they really want to do. They pressure their kids into what they believe is success – which in India today is: after their 12th, they’ll go abroad to study.

Schools don’t teach new things, because the new things aren’t in the syllabus.

Colleges hardly collaborate on research, which is usually left to someone who publishes a paper somewhere once in a few years. Research, by nature, is something new, but they hardly trust anything new.

Corporates don’t really do that much research. Big car companies have microscopic changes to adopt to Indian conditions, but no one’s really gone out of the way to fix, for example, the terribly designed autorickshaw. Even the new technology and ecommerce startups have only incremental innovations in India – there’s hardly anything dramatically new and exciting (like Tesla cars or Google Search or such).

Even our space research department prides itself on the low failure rate. Our banks haven’t failed, says the RBI, with pride. Our corporate defaults and bankruptcies are low and long-winded.

If we don’t fail enough, we don’t create enough, or try hard enough. We don’t do things better because we’re taking the path that failure is not an option. At some point, we have to start telling ourselves – not just as a startup community but as a country – that it’s okay to fail. That it’s fine if our kids don’t get those degrees. That it’s fine if we, in the process of discovering new things, fall behind.

As a country, the collective hatred of failure takes us back, because we stop trying new things. Like in the awesome movie, “Finding Nemo”, when Nemo’s dad says to Dory that he promised his wife he wouldn’t let anything happen to Nemo, Dory replies:

If you don’t let anything happen to him, then nothing will ever happen to him.

And that will be our loss.

Now, bye bye and I’ll be back soon. Too soon. 


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