Should I go ahead or try again?

Failure culture: Fall down, get up, carry on

Nobody wants to have anything to do with losers.

From Roland Lindner

Travis Kalanick wasn't always at the top. The driving service Uber, which he co-founded and runs as CEO, is now the highest-rated start-up in the world. But his career began with a flop when his first company had to file for bankruptcy. Kalanick is in good company. Some of the most famous and successful American entrepreneurs met the bankruptcy judge in their early years, from auto pioneer Henry Ford to media mogul Walt Disney to ketchup maker Henry J. Heinz. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has seen a number of bankruptcies in his corporate empire.

Falling down and getting up again is part of the American myth. "Dust Yourself Off and Try Again" is what they say in the United States, which means: wipe off dirt and try again. Behind this is the optimism that you can achieve something if you just don't give up - the legendary “can do” mentality in the land of unlimited possibilities. This is where Elvis Presley finally became a superstar, who at the beginning of his career had to hear that he would never make it as a singer and should rather go back to his old job as a truck driver. And Fred Astaire was once certified that he could neither sing nor act and at most dance a little before he became a Hollywood legend.

Failure in America is often seen only as a stopover on the way to great deeds, perhaps even as a welcome preliminary stage that holds valuable lessons for later success. This attitude is widespread, for example, in the Californian technology region of Silicon Valley, which sees itself as a place for daredevil and willingness to take risks. If an idea doesn't work out here, you try something else and don't necessarily have to fear being avoided by investors.

Yet failure is by no means universally accepted and free of stigma in the United States either. "Failure is only okay in retrospect, if you are successful," says 34-year-old Patrice Washington, who now makes good money as a self-employed financial advisor, but looks back on difficult times. She had a real estate company in California that collapsed in the last decade's financial crisis, leaving her with $ 2 million in debt. "Back then, some people gave me the feeling that they were judging or even mocking me."

Washington has been in financial straits several times in her life. By the age of 22, she had amassed $ 18,000 in credit card debt, not even because of extravagant purchases, but because she had underestimated how quickly interest can add up. She vowed that this would never happen to her again and began to strictly manage her money until she was out of debt. In 2003 she founded the real estate company together with her current husband. There was a lot of money to be made in the housing market at the time, and the company grew to have more than a dozen employees. In 2007, however, business cooled off, and the financial and economic crisis that followed soon brought it to a virtual standstill. Unfortunately, in the midst of the turmoil, Washington was hospitalized for several weeks due to complications in her pregnancy at the time, and when she was finally able to go home with her newborn daughter, she was billed $ 400,000 because her insurance was only partially for the Treatment wanted to come up. Washington and her husband were initially determined to get by with their company in the time of crisis, but in the end they had to surrender. They then tried to reduce the resulting mountain of debt, but after a few years saw no other way out than to file for personal bankruptcy.

Today Washington gives financial advice in books and television appearances. She says she and her husband will have a seven-figure annual income again. But the collapse of her previous company is having an impact, and she recalls that restarting wasn't easy. A lot was whispered behind her back at the time, and she even felt glee, even from her own family. Malicious things were said like: "You are probably not that big a number." In social networks, she is still sometimes accused of having stolen from responsibility for her debts with the bankruptcy. She doesn't have a guilty conscience about it. “The banks were bailed out by the government, but they didn't help the people themselves. We tried for a long time to find another solution with the banks. "

Susan Davis-Ali, who runs a career counseling service for women called Leadhership 1, has observed that Americans accept failure less than they say they do. The tolerance of failure is higher here than elsewhere, but there is no general license. Entrepreneurs are more likely to forgive failure than employees, and especially in particularly innovation-driven segments such as the technology industry, there is no avoiding failure to be understood as part of the work. “It is part of the awareness that it often takes many attempts before you land a hit.” Companies in Silicon Valley are famous for principles such as “Move Fast and Break Things” to signal to employees that something can go wrong if you are pursuing ambitious projects.

Otherwise, in Davis-Ali's opinion, it often depends on the individual company and its culture to what extent failure and failure are tolerated. And also of the consequences associated with a misstep. Anyone who is responsible for a defect at a car manufacturer that leads to accidents and recalls will find it difficult to avoid sanctions. General Motors, for example, parted ways with a number of employees in a high-profile recall two years ago because of an ignition lock failure. In the opinion of the career counselor, reputation in the company also determines whether and to what extent someone can hope for mercy. Davis-Ali remembers how she once fired an employee who was already not particularly valued by her after a gross mistake. “That gave me a good reason to break up with her. On the other hand, I would have forgiven a top performer without hesitation. "

Financial advisor Washington looks back on the failure of her previous company with self-criticism and sees it as a personal failure, even though the environment at the time was extremely difficult. She says she should have recognized the warning signs earlier and thus maybe avoided getting deeper and deeper into debt. “But I thought I would get out of there with my can-do attitude.” Today she is back on top and can feel rehabilitated. Americans love such comeback stories. But Washington had to make this comeback first. She learned painfully that the acceptance of failure can be limited in America when one is in the middle of the misery. And even Donald Trump demonstrates little tolerance for defeat despite his own multiple slip-ups. If he wants to offend someone again, he prefers to use the word “loser” - “loser”.

 

 

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