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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. 

  • Vin says:

    Great post! You could re-run this one once-a-year! 🙂
    Enjoy your vacation!

  • IsItPossible says:

    >>>> People are afraid to fail, to veer away from a known tried and tested path
    Nice article but sounds very 1 sided…. completely ignoring a critical part in many average ordinary people lives…
    Yes, in many cases people are afraid to fail NOT because they fear of criticism or failures BUT rather in most cases because they have personal/family responsibilities, financial burdens and failure is NOT an option. Failure in such scenarios mean end of that family “literally” leaving NO chance for another attempt.
    Not trying to justify but it is indeed the ground reality…

    • Sanjay Singhaniya says:

      Hi IsItPossible,
      It seems this article is directed towards upper middle class people – as pointed out people who can send their children to US after 12th.
      There are many upper middle class people who dont try new even when they can afford.
      Lower middle class can not even think of doing anything new. It will be a disaster if it fails.

  • Adheer says:

    Beautiful words !!
    Here is a nice article on Mastery by James Altucher

  • Anon says:

    This is a great post. Completely matches my undrestanding. Just look at Elon musk and Google to see how much they are risking and trying out. Unfortunately I don’t see that mentality in our country. I don’t know if infosys / wipro have tried out anything risky. If they have tried out and failed it is ok. However, not trying out is a crime. And now infy is struggling (IMHO) and going to struggle in future.
    I was also of the same mentality till a few years ago. Now I am in my second startup. First I quit in 5 months because of failure and I think I learnt a lot more in those 5 months compared to 7 years of corporate job. I have also had lots of ups and down in my 2nd one. I am finding it very hard to get people on board, simply because they are afraid to lose salary of few months.
    I also believe that kids should be taught in school/colleges ( apart from acceptance of failure)
    1) Life is not fair and never going to be fair. Be prepared to find your way out that.
    2) Finanace, money managment and tax planning.
    3) Physical health is much more important in long term compared to 12th marks, so exercises regularly since your child hood.

  • Sankar says:

    We have grown up in this kind of middle class mindset. Needs lot of time/incidents to change this mindset. Lack of social security also one of the reasons. Soon this will change, people will realize that keeping their money as deposit in PSU banks is not at all an viable option, they have to produce something useful using their money/energy. Loss is better than continuous mediocre results.

  • JustSaying says:

    Amish Tripathi in his book ‘Immortals of Meluha’ has mentioned “stability allows freedom of choice”, this aptly applies to this situation.
    For a middle class, its always a case of achieving financial stability. They always teach their kids to achieve stability. That’s why you see lots of parents forcing their kids to pursue the attained paths of becoming a Doctor, MBA, CA, Engineer, etc. No parents would even ask their child what he/ she want to do/ become in life. No one would dare to do research/ develop products or pursue art/ music/ sports as a career, as your future financial stability is uncertain in these areas. I feel only ultra-rich who can afford to lose or lower income-class who don’t have anything to lose will follow their dreams.
    Middle class parents should themselves stop worrying about peer pressure and teach their children to have limited needs. This would help children to follow their dreams.

  • Kunal says:

    This by far is the best read i have had in a long long time…and i do read quite a bit. 🙂
    Awesome work, Deepak. keep it up.

  • Rajat Bose says:

    I have no qualms to treat this as one of your best posts, if not the best one. You have hit the bulls eye. Our culture has forgotten the value of failing; hence, it doesn’t encourage treading the uncharted territory.
    When you can’t go beyond the proven formula, you only end up producing things that are mediocre at best. However, the sad part is that this avoiding failure at all costs has become so ingrained in our culture, there would not be an easy way out of this mess so coveted by us.
    I sincerely wish that your post initiates a discussion as to how we can get out of this rut, or are we really interested going beyond this wrong paradigm of avoiding failure at all cost. Do most of us really recognize it as a problem? Or, should we continue to play safe game in order to just keep our back side covered?

    • Thanks Rajat! You have said it right – we make mediocre things because we’re afraid of failing at the big things. And it’s hopefully something we recognise before we’re forced to recognise it.
      I see a lot of comments now (only now coudl I approve them), thanks!

  • DJ says:

    This is a non-issue in India. Because, if someone is close to failing (in school), dad is gonna shell up money to buy the degree, or a college seat or whatever else that may be needed. If nothing else, the dude, dudette will be shipped over to Kaneda (Canada) or some other place. I don’t think anyone among the elite is worried about failure.
    And, in India, the problem isn’t testing in schools, its the artificial scarcity of good schools. Where universities are plentiful, say US, there isn’t as much of a rat race as in India. In the US, they are feeling the pressure because of the increase in population and the open system thereby allowing foreigners to come in. I bet you if we had such an open system, we would be complaining that others are coming in and taking our children’s college seats.
    In India, we have the opposite problem. We were ranked 2nd out of last in learning surveys like PISA, so the govt banned the survey after 2011. Note, the learning survey was not very rat race like. It was measuring very simple things like reading ability, etc. When we are talking about simple things like that, I think measurement helps. Its helps identify problems earlier. If we don’t measure, we fall into the other trap of mollycoddling ourselves and expecting to not fail ever. So, sure, rat race exams are pathetic, but the crowding tells us that we need more/better universities, abolishing or dumbing down the exam isn’t going to change anything. And, maybe the measure needs to be better, or it should be only for basic things. But, no one is entitled to not being a loser just by make-believe.
    In trading, the market grades the trader every hour, every day. In fact, paradoxically, how does one promote that its ok to fail by not grading or measuring? Isn’t it the opposite then where everyone is oblivious about what they know or don’t know?

  • DJ says:

    Well. I need to say more.
    As a country, its not that we shun failure. We had our crisis/failure in 1992. The hindu rate of growth decades were long durations of failure. There’s failure if one looks at any metric of standard of living. Its not that we shun failure. We just seem to have our own bubble, with some narrow, strange views on what is failure and what is not. Its our own make believe and I think it is because of the lack of global measurement, where 95% of the country does not even know what standards of living are like in other countries. So, they do not know how they fare as compared to an average person in another country. This is the risk when one does not measure and inform the person concerned on how he/she is doing. Sure, a kid getting bad grades in maths might be sad, but its an objective fact that one can learn about early on rather than later (note again, I’m not talking about rate race entrance exams which is a college supply issue, but basic learning).
    Our banks shall not fail, but its ok if the banks are selling Ulips or have unusable websites or have systems failing every day or if half the country doesn’t have an account, etc, etc. I don’t think that can be termed as being averse to failure.

    • To be honest, 1992 was the failure that opened India up. That’s the kind of creative destruction we need.
      Metrics of standards of living have always astounded us, I agree. The concept of no-open-defecation astounds many in villages; why bother, they think. And just having travelled through semi-urban and rural karnataka, the standards we’ll allow in our non tier 1 towns is shocking 😉
      In order to fix banks, they have to be allowed to fail. For instance, banks should be fined for misselling ulips with compounding fines. If the fine amount becomes big enough the bank will fail. This has to be allowed to happen. But banks aren’t considered brokers (they are agents) for precisely this reason.
      That we’re averse to failure is one thing, but the fact remains that the stuff you talk about isn’t considered a failure. What I speak of is the obvious failures – like bankruptcy, like a bank that dies, like a person that gets horrible grades, or whatever. When that scares us off even trying stuff, we don’t do anything at all

      • DJ says:

        Yeah, I agree on all of your points. Creative destruction, bankruptcies, all good, etc.
        However, as you said in your last para, the point was about people getting scared. And, as you said, we don’t do anything at all. But, my point was that we do do something. Very often, we shoot the messenger. When, instead, we should recognize the problem and address it, either by switching to something else or improving. When a child does horribly in maths and his parents switch him to music, and he becomes an overnight musical prodigy, should we really complain about the grading system, or did the grades enable the switch to music and help identify the problem? This is the stereotypical example that educationists use to denigrate the grading system, when I look at it and say, the grading system worked, didn’t it? And then, universities in the US are pretty diversified. They have sports, music, dance scholarships.
        People are prone to creating a bubble where they worry about some kinds of failure but not others. And, when someone impedes on that bubble, they are intent on removing the particularly troublesome type of failure by abolishing measurement, thereby making mediocrity the norm everywhere. Its this attitude of rather than fix the problem, fix the measure. In the Indian context (and elsewhere), acceptance of failure might perversely end up glorifying chalta hai and jugaad. That is the other side of the coin. Acceptance of failure is not good under all circumstances is what I wanted to say. Not when it compromises quality and meritocracy.
        In fact, I think that the argument is wrongly framed as being about acceptance of failure. It should be about fighting stereotypes and acceptance of non-conformism and about risk-taking. At this point, I think I have confused myself about the definition of failure in these contexts!!
        As far as lack of research and innovation goes in India, we haven’t solved basic issues for the median citizen, so we (as a whole, as an economy) do not have sufficient demand for innovation. All the innovation demand comes from global competition or global demand. Meanwhile, we continue to have huge demand for basic services, which doesn’t need any innovation, although newer technology makes it easier to provide those basic services, which we still cannot manage. And, if the median citizen isn’t going to have to worry about survival then maybe he/she won’t worry about failure either. If the middle class feels secure, and there’s good infrastructure for basic services, then they won’t have to waste a majority of the day fixing infrastructure issues and their children won’t have to worry about failure.

        • I think you have me wrong. It’s not like I’m saying we shouldn’t grade people. (I believe we shouldn’t till a certain time, say 5th standard, but that’s a different concept). I’m saying we shouldn’t be all senti that we fail or get low grades. If it gives us enthu, great. If it pushes us over the edge, bad.
          Measuring things is useful. I think to tell us that we will stop measuring things because we stop caring about grades is also a little overdone. We shouldn’t care about our grades, and just go find something interesting to do, because in that there is great progress.
          I’ll be happy to disagree about whether my point is about acceptance of failure or about non conformism. My basic point is that we should not be afraid to fail; it’s that lack of fear that causes us to discover new things and all that. It’s not about non conformism – that is a different point.
          I also thing putting a stereotype like we haven’t solved basic issues, isn’t useful in this context. You don’t have to do one thing after another, you can do them simultaneously. I don’t say that ecommerce is bad beacuse there innovation is only marginal. I say we need the big guys like Tesla alongside. I don’t buy the deal that we should do X first, get everyone up to speed and only then do Y. It’s the attempt for Y that makes everyone else come up to speed, and that’s been noticed all over the world.
          Infra issues aren’t a problem for most people I speak about (that will read this article anyhow). The internet reader, with >25,000 per month in income, is hardly bothered about infra issues all day. And those that really get impacted by infra issues become true entrepreneurs (the lower end of the economic strata)
          But when I say we don’t accept failure, I don’t mean that we should tell ourselves that we needn’t even try to succeed. I mean that we shouldn’t be afraid to try new things just because, in teh process, we might fail.

        • DJ says:

          Bah, and you have me wrong too.
          First of all, I don’t disagree with you on the main post, the main idea or any of your points. I didn’t say that you said that we shouldn’t measure. I was ruminating aloud about blind spots and perversions of the ideas (which you did not put forth) in a general, related, rambling sense. And I did confuse myself, so I don’t know or care myself about agreement or disagreement. :p
          I wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t do cutting edge stuff because we haven’t done basic stuff. I don’t endorse that stereotype. The point was an economic one. Cutting edge research is expensive and might be more vs less economical in a developed vs developing economy. Its about the presence or absence of economic demand for innovation (and true that some cutting edge stuff may have the demand even in a developing economy, but not always). Its not the moral argument about don’t spend on X because of the “guilt” of not having something basic as Y, that doesn’t make sense. An example, would be something like researching a new drug that is said to take a billion dollars. That imposes real economic constraints on who can or cannot invest in that. We should do cutting edge stuff when we can, but we will always be able to do only some fraction of gdp per capita (so we will be limited in an economic sense). Actually, there is a related problem here of “exit” from the system. We don’t invest in innovation also because our elite goes out of the country for things like education, healthcare, etc. If our elite can’t exit from the country, we might have more pressure/economic demand for higher quality services than we normally do. Although, its not the elite to be blamed when the govt clamps down on economic demand.
          About infra issues, I don’t think problems with public goods (that should be fixed by govt policy) should be solved by private entrepreneurship. That is the whole jugaad concept. It is sub-optimal and should not be tolerated. It might be necessary in the meantime, but it should not be considered acceptable. And, fair enough, maybe the readers are un-impacted by infra issues. I didn’t find that to be the case for me, but maybe its not the norm…

        • Perhaps I misunderstood 🙂 Will blame that on the holiday.
          I agree with you on the brain drain too. That’s changing (changed?) because there are enough of the “best minds” that now live in India. The piece on economics I largely am in tune with – that it does cost a lot. But we can do parts of the system. INdia does do a lot of drug innovation for instance, which costs serious money, and that I like and invest in 🙂 But it’s not quite enough – for example the whole malaria thing is a serious issue in India and there seems to be not enough research going around to help bring it down. (THat might need community efforts etc., I understand)

        • DJ says:

          Nah, I didn’t mean brain drain, I meant local demand for higher quality services. For example, Sonia Gandhi goes to the US to get healthcare service. And, most of the elite does that, whether they have a brain or not (in the case of SG that should be obvious, sorry I can’t resist). If she had to get her healthcare in India, maybe she’d actually think about investment into research rather than just investment into social welfare to buy votes. That’s the kind of “exit” from the system that the upper middle class/elite is involved in which limits the demand of innovation within the country. Live in gated communities, have your own power generation systems, educate yourself, get healthcare, etc from outside the country. Its an exit from the domestic economy which then leads to apathy about local innovation and local conditions. Instead that money could/should have been channeled into local research or improvement of local infra.
          This is not my point anyway. Its Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s term: middle class “exit” from the system. So instead of fixing problems domestically, we just go and get it from out of the country, thus reducing local investment.

  • Kaushik says:

    Hi Deepak,
    I felt touched by the humility you have written the article with.This is very rare and I appreciate the fact that you are 100% correct in your words & feelings 🙂
    Have a great time in Goa and we readers will wait for you with a fresh mind 🙂
    Thanks and Regards

  • Eswar says:

    Have a good one Deepak! And dont take panga with the Russian mafia. That kind of failure, you dont need. 🙂
    Lovely piece on failure. Heartfelt and sincere. The fear of rocking the boat, of getting off the gravy train, of falling off the wagon, of sailing away despite seeing the storm build, waves heave, to stop pedaling like crazy, to shift gears and slow down – essentially the feelings I am afraid to feel – is running my life. 🙂

  • XYZ says:

    That note on failure is almost pholisophical. You have been an inspiration
    Well done Deepak! Long way to go!!

  • Px says:

    Been coming back to ur sites or ur sites avatars from way way back .. moneyoga was it ?
    Learnt a lot from you ! Keep up the great work !
    Ur an inspiration !
    Enjoy ur vacation !

  • XYZ says:

    Megan McArdle is a child of privilege. Children of privilege can fail multiple time and still get second, third, fourth and fifth chances in life. That’s not true for most poor people and especially people living in poor countries like India.
    – XYZ (The original one)
    Not that I care that someone else is using this uncreative moniker 🙂

  • XYZ says:

    And wishing a very happy holiday.
    I haven’t had a vacation in a long time. Probably this is a sign that I should plan one.

  • Deepak has touched a topic which is clearly on top of the mind of young parents like me. Our son is just 4 yrs old but when we often think of what career he will chose, we tend to say “we will let me choose a profession as long as its financially viable for him and his family life” this is a mindset we (as in average middle class household) have been brought up with and it gets passed on to our kids.
    I think the education system is trying to change this mindset as there are schools (like IGCSE, Alternate schools like Steiner philosophy) coming up in metro cities now. IGCSE fees are almost double the regular schools and some parents say that alternate schools don’t bring in competitive spirit in the child.
    Secondly what happens is the moment the child reaches 7th or 8th standard, the parents start feeling that these schools are not doing enough to prepare them for IIT/IIM or MBBS. So they tend to get jittery and shift them to an ICSE curriculum, lest their child is left behind or doesn’t score good enough marks. .
    I am too tempted to try out the new schooling methods for my son simply because i feel he is not someone who can be bound by syllabus, homework, class tests. I still have two years to chose a regular ICSE school or an alternate school for him. But as Deepak pointed out, its the fear of the new method not working that holds me back from using it. Hopefully i shall be able to overcome that fear in another 2 years.

    • XYZ says:

      Play is safe for your children. India is a poor country. Megan McArdle comes from a rich family in one of the richest countries in the world. She is well-connected too.
      But don’t push your children too much into what you think is right. Give them enough leeway to express their interests.