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Learning from Failure

Failure - A Key to Success

Repeating Failures

Posted on January 17,2010

Benefits of Failure Failure is the one ingredient that is necessary for progress. Without failure, there can be no success. Failing to correct what goes wrong dooms us to repeat the experience. Others have said the same thing more eloquently than I, but the importance of failure and how it guides us personally, socially, and politically cannot be overstated.

Scientists call their endeavors to elicit the truth of a theory ‘experiments’. It is the experimental failures that lead scientists to make the necessary adjustments for success. The failures of their learning progress may even lead to other discoveries that create more theories. Progress is achieved by taking advantage of mistakes. Failures are a guide to success.

Whether we are talking about people, inventions, nations, or the world collectively; it is in learning the lessons from our failed attempts to get it right that leads to success.

Our cultures are littered with failures that have been proven to not serve the greater good. Among societies’ failures we can include the feudal system, authoritarian regimes including kings and dictators, the rigid capitalistic model, the communist model, patriarchal and matriarchal models, and the socialist model. All have been tried and failed because of their inadequacies. The democratic model is survivable only because it gives the people a non-violent method to make changes to the different environments that the people find themselves in.

Humans are tribally centric. There is no ‘one size fits all’ set of rules that fits everybody’s needs. It is for that reason that total centralization of power just doesn’t work. The American founders realized this when they formed the United States. Local governance empowers individuals with the ability to make decisions affecting their ‘tribe’ or community without the involvement from people who are not affected by their decisions. And, as long as the local and state decisions do not contradict the umbrella agreement agreed to by all the States known as the Constitution, everybody feels that they are a part of the whole, yet independent.

The government formed by the founders also allowed for mistakes. They built into the Constitution a method for us to correct and make adjustments for the passage of time and human progress. The method the founders built into the Constitution is the amendment process.

Our Supreme Court, made up of generally well meaning judges, bring to the bench their different personal philosophies. Their decisions can alter the way we live. Because of the potential for a fanatical viewpoint to become prevalent on the Supreme Court, each justice has to undergo Senate approval. That process is supposed to ferret out any individual with a bias or desire to change the society according to their personal philosophy. Our system of justice selection is not perfect, but until a better method comes along, it is the system we rely on. The system does make mistakes and the Court has had its share of radical justices who made it to the Supreme Court for political reasons. Justices sometimes see the role of the court is to make changes to the society at large through their legal decisions rather than defer the issues not found within the Constitution to the Legislature. The Constitution does not embody every facet of human activity. That is why we have a legislature that is supposed to represent the will of the people. Several issues have been made into law without the deliberation and consultation of the legislature.

What has this all to do with failure? Starting today, it should be recognized that whenever the will of the people is circumvented, that the harmony of the whole is disrupted. Divisive decisions made without regard to the wishes of the public have broad and unsavory consequences. The decisions about abortion and prayer in school are examples of divisive issues that should have been codified by the legislature and the legality of that legislation decided upon by the Supreme Court. By working the issues through the people’s representatives, we empower the people with the responsibility for those decisions. Supreme Court Justices making decisions are not answerable to the people. They take it upon themselves to create law instead of deferring the matter for legislation where the people writing the legislation are held accountable by the voters.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with those decisions is not relevant to this discussion. The thrust of this dissertation is to point out that the will of the people was circumvented and created unnecessary divisions within in our society. The angst felt by the people who disagreed with those decisions would have been avoided if the Congress would have done their job by proposing legislation or allowed the amendment process to proceed so that the will of the people could be respected. Instead, the Congress failed in their responsibility and the matter was left in the hands of the Supreme Court. These are failures by a legislature afraid to rock the boat and satisfied kicking the can down the road without having to face their voters.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court seems perfectly willing to make changes in our society via their legal decisions. The Supreme Court does not have to face re-election and therefore have job security regardless of how they vote on an issue. The Congress uses the Supreme Court to handle tough decisions because it keeps their hands clean from having to expose their true position about an issue. In essence, the Court becomes the shield for congressional inaction. The court can make decisions about controversial issues without the voter’s involvement. This process disenfranchises large bodies of American citizens and is a failure of the Democratic process. Failure begets failure and will not change until Americans of all political stripes put an end to career politicians.

Career politicians spend most of their time running for the next election in order to hold on to their very lucrative and powerful positions. Please support term limits.

We’ve suffered through these failures and now it is time to correct their cause. Please understand that power is very corruptive whether it’s a corporation, our courts, or by our elected politicians. Our failures are guidepost for the American people to learn from. If we do not recognize and learn from our failures, no progress is possible, worse, failure is repetitive.

The above scenario is about the failure of a system having career politicians. But in the end, we are responsible for those failures. It is we who keep re-electing them. The longer a politician is in Washington, the craftier he/she becomes. The wizened politician learns the ins and outs of inserting unrelated amendments into a bill that raises his stature with his voting base, but has to be paid for by those outside of his home territory. This action keeps the politician in office because we think he is doing a ‘good job’. If we force the Congress to pass term limits, we will have made a correction to what we have now and force a different outcome from the repetition of mistakes that the Congress continues to make. Remember, failure is only a guidepost. It does not have to be remedied. No, we can live with our failures to correct problems and continue to repeat them.

Failure is also a winnowing process. It takes strong people to overcome failure and make the necessary corrections to arrive at their destination. When individuals become discouraged and settle for less than their objective, failure becomes imbedded and accepted by those individuals. Expectations become lower as well as self-esteem.

It is true that everyone doesn’t strive for the same results. Early attempts at endeavors that fail give rise to the acceptance of failure. Whatever our position on the ladder of economical success happens to be, we are at that position because of how much failure we are willing to accept. The more aggressive among us don’t tolerate failure very well and climb higher up the ladder.

Life starts out with high expectations, but the outcome of those expectations depend on how determined and prepared we are to face the obstacles that have to be faced. Preparation is the leverage needed to lessen the opportunity for failure.

Preparation has its own set of requirements. To properly prepare for a venture takes work and sometimes a lot of work. If you have the goal to do well in school, then you know that preparation for your studies will challenge you for your time away from life’s other distractions. One conclusion that you can make about minimizing failure in life is to have a strong work ethic.

One of the most damaging parts of our society to individuals is our practice of trying to help those of us who fail to help themselves. The help we render to those who are not very responsible becomes addictive to them. Failure has already become their way of life and no amount of help can rediscover that spark. The numbers of people who realize their sad predicament and make the necessary corrections for themselves is pitifully small. No, I am not suggesting that we allow these people to just starve. But they need encouragement. Progress on their part has to be a part of the price for accepting help.

Rehabilitation is more than just a word. Self-confidence has to be reignited with the poverty trapped people in our society. It is the ‘how’ to do it that remains to be answered. This goal can be achieved if we look upon the problem as just another obstacle to be overcome. There has to be a recognition that self-esteem cannot be given to a person. Only achievement can produce that result. With encouragement from the broader population, the spiral of low self-esteem can be overcome. The things we take for granted like paying the electric bill can be a monumental achievement for a person who is struggling just to live. These small steps by a person in the poverty trap of welfare need to have these achievements recognized. If we were to pay the electric bill for the person, that person has no way of being proud of it.

Doing things for people just makes them feel even more inadequate. And, that type of help is addictive. It just further aggravates the problem. A hand out isn’t even a band-aid for the problem of low self-esteem. Sure, the helped person would be appreciative but there is still that part of a person’s dignity that realizes they are failures. Handouts only serve to bolster the egos of the ‘helpers’ whether it is an organization like ‘Habitat for Humanity’ or sponsors of ‘Soup Kitchens’, the results is still demeaning to the recipient. Other solutions need to be found so that the poor can develop that sense of achievement. This problem is not about the givers, it is about helping those in need to develop a sense of achievement.

I repeat, continuing the failed solutions that we now employ only bring about more failure. Failure begets failure. We should resolve to recognize our failures and correct them. Remember successful societies overcome failures, those who don’t, perish. It is that simple.

You know that I view failure as a gift as long as we recognize our failure and keep trying to get it right. Getting it right leads me into the subject of maintaining bad business models.

An expression about not taking the advantage of failure reads something like this – “Doomed to repeat the same mistake”.

Case in point – General Motors went broke – not because they were a bad company, but because they made bad decisions in a time when foreign competition was very low. It is very hard to unspill the milk, but that is what they needed. Retiree benefit obligations had put them in a non-competitive position. They had to overprice their vehicles to meet their obligations, and were not able to sustain their customer base.

Bankruptcy and complete reorganization would have cured a lot of their problems, but not all of them. The problem that hung in the air was how to restart without disregarding the human side of the equation with respect to the retirees who were now depending on GM for their sustenance. Pensions and medical care for the retirees put an exceptional burden on GM’s ability to compete. The retirees were not at fault - they believed and trusted GM to keep their word concerning their retirement benefits.

GM was not financially solvent, so they went to the American People (The Government) and asked for loans. But what they asked for was loans to continue business as usual until somehow the market would turn around and they (GM) would make a miraculous rebound and be able to repay the loans.

Well, all lenders have to decide the question of whether or not a prospective borrower has the ability to pay back their loan. Since the Government is the lender of last resort, GM must have exhausted all other avenues for loans before approaching the Government. Can you imagine having a failed business and asking for a loan to extend that failure? Sure, a loan would have given GM a little breathing room, but without a cure, the patient would still die.

What GM and the Government settled on was not a good solution either. The company lost its autonomy and is still burdened with the retiree and union problem. GM still might not survive unless they can compete on a cost basis with other manufacturers. Even fixing quality problems may not be enough to attract buyers of the cheaper but equal in quality cars from other manufacturers.

Recognizing failure would have been helpful to GM. What if, when they went to Washington to get help, instead of asking for a loan to just prolong the agony, they had confessed to having a bad business model? Instead of borrowing to continue with a failed model, they came with a plan for the borrowed money to retire all obligations to their retirees and the Union. Upon the success of retiring their long term debt to the retirees, they could then go through a normal bankruptcy for reorganization. A GM with a clean slate would have emerged as a tough competitor for anybody. The company would still have maintained its autonomy. A reconstituted GM would have been able to repay the Government and start making a profit. Of course that did not happen, but my-oh-my, what an opportunity.

When something isn’t working, it is time to rethink the situation. A boil will just keep on festering and hurting until the core of it is removed. All the band-aids in the world do nothing until that core either comes out on its own or is lanced.

GM isn’t the only company that needs to recognize their shortcomings. We have lost many manufacturing jobs because of stubborn bad management. Those companies that seek to improve their balance sheet by moving to a different country do all Americans a disservice. Real wealth creation is taking something of little value and making something of value out of it. “Made in America” used to be a recognized trademark for quality and dependability. But we have lost the privilege of putting that on most of our products anymore because so much of our manufacturing and brands have been farmed out to China. “Made in China” is on most of the consumer goods we purchase. I lament that outcome because it could been so much different with a little effort.

Yes, as I have stated, failure is a gift. But what we do with that gift can mean success or just more failure. Just because what you are doing or manufacturing is no longer profitable, it is time to make the necessary changes to get it right. Taking your facility to another country is a band-aid that will still find the deficiencies in your business model. There are too many businesses that have sought for and found solutions other than moving their companies to other countries. These successful businesses should be a model for those thinking about jumping ship for cheap labor.

Our institutions like Harvard and other business colleges should instill into their students the importance of finding solutions and good management instead of so much focus on profit. Profit is important, but how we make profit is also important. It is more than a shame for any business to need a Governmental agency breathing down their backs because today’s businesses put profit above ethics. Have we as a people lost sight of right and wrong and are no longer trustworthy? If so, then we have lost our value system and need to restore it.



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Inevitable Failure- - Did you ever think about it? Every attempt at maintaining a society has failed. Some have been good in their inception, but all drift into the dustbin of history.

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