Photo by Dano, Photo by Dano,

By Nick Manning, President

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
–Thomas A. Edison

I have the great blessing to have children who are in high school and beginning their college search, and have also been blessed with some very sharp people here at PRIER who are early in their management careers.  The similarity I have noticed from many of these people I am privileged to oversee is their fear of what they perceive to be failure.  Certainly the “high schoolers” and the “managers” are at different levels of their lives, but the similarities of what I am calling the fear of failure piqued my interest.

I was at a college planning fair with two of my daughters and their friends.  All of these girls are excellent students who work very hard both in and outside of the classroom.  They are girls that virtually any college would be pleased if they chose their school as their next place of study.  To me, this was a fantastic opportunity for these girls to shine, humbly brag about themselves and their accomplishments and talk to these college recruiters to begin to determine if that school was the right fit for them.  In short, these girls were stressed out nervous wrecks! 

As I was talking to these girls about their stress, it came out that they were terrified about “making the wrong decision” about where and what to study.  Of course, making a wrong decision is always a possibility, but I told them that this is why they were at the college planning fair, to arm them with the knowledge they need to make the correct decision. And more importantly, if they made the wrong decision, what’s the worst that could happen… they transfer to a different school???  They certainly wouldn’t be the first kid to ever do that!  I tried to impart on them that these were the GREAT decisions of life!  It’s not like they are deciding on a cancer treatment protocol or some other decision that will affect whether they will live or not. Maybe I should just know that this is what you get with teenaged girls?

At PRIER we have a group of young, very bright managers who are learning about how to navigate the business world and they, too, seem afraid to fail!  In their case, I’m truly not sure why they are afraid to fail.  Are they afraid to disappoint their coworkers?  Are they afraid to disappoint themselves?  Believe me; we know they’re not perfect, because no one among us is.

Maybe it’s a generational thing, this fear of failure.  Maybe it’s something that was instilled in them by their (helicopter) parents, their teachers or friends?  Is it the result of today’s “everyone gets a trophy” society?  Whatever the reason, I think failure is a great way for people to grow.  I could easily write a thousand words on my failures. But more importantly, I could write ten thousand words on what I learned from those failures!

So, the question is, how do we let this generation safely fail?  Obviously their safety is the highest priority.  I wouldn’t want them to fail at something that could cause them permanent damage.  If we have a young manager, we want to put processes in place that limit the liabilities of their failures.    I think we should arm these people with what they need to succeed and then push them to accomplish more than they think they are capable.  When they inevitably fail at something, it is equally important to talk about what occurred, what could have been done differently to avoid the situation, and then implement those lessons learned as they move forward.  If these young people are as good as I think they are, they will learn from their failings and rarely make the same mistake twice.

If it is a generational thing, we’d better learn how to solve this problem, because it will be around for the next 20 years.  I’d hate to think what our world would be like if people like Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Bill Gates, Michael Jordan and the Wright Brothers were afraid to fail!