By Clark Boyd
Winning. It's certainly been on Charlie Sheen's mind lately, that's for sure. But there are more than a few American entrepreneurs who will tell you that the best way to win, in the end, is to actually fail. Early, and often.
That is not a concept embraced in most of Europe's businesses and organizations. But Holland's Institute of Brilliant Failures thinks it should be.
The Institute is based in Amsterdam, where a boat ride along the canals seems more a testament to success. Through the centuries, the Dutch have managed to beat back the sea with dams and dykes, and build a thriving city with a global reach.
"If you look at the history of the Netherlands, it's very much a country of control and managing," says Paul Iske, who directs the Institute of Brilliant Failures.
"That kind of control is unrealistic in today's world. Now, it's more a matter of navigation. In this country, we need that change of thinking."
The Institute grew out of Iske's research as a professor in business innovation. He was studying the effects of bankruptcy on businesspeople in Holland for one of the Netherlands' largest banks, ABN-AMRO.
Learning from failure
Iske says he found that many who went through bankruptcy were so traumatized, and so stigmatized, that they never tried to start a business again. But those that did, Iske notes, often succeeded because their failures had taught them something.
Iske wanted to help others embrace failure, and so he started the Institute, and began offering failure workshops to businesses and organizations.
"We offered one session to the Dutch Foreign Ministry," remembers Bas Ruyssenaars, the Institute's vice-president. "And it was a real eye-opener for people, because they'd never discussed their personal experience with failure in such a setting."
Now, the Institute's website is a place where anyone can nominate a failure – in business, art, science, and any other area.
Of course, we're not talking about "tripping over a shoelace" kind of stuff. Brilliance, in failing, has to meet certain criteria.
"What we define as a brilliant failure is something that has been tried with very good intentions," says Paul Iske.
"And at the moment people had to make decisions, and of course they experienced something very different from what they tried to achieve. That's the failure part."
"The brilliant part is that we can learn something from it, and in the worst case scenario you learn well, this is not the way to do it. And in the best case you learn something that you didn't even expect."
Iske's favorite example of this kind of serendipity is Viagra, which was originally developed as a heart medication. It is winner, though, due to its, well, side effects.
Another of Iske's favorite brilliant failures involves Holland's beloved speed skating.
Dealing with disappointment
Dutch skater Sven Kramer was expected to win gold in the 10,000 meters in the Vancouver Winter Games last year. With Kramer well out in front, though, his coach mistakenly told him to change lanes at the wrong time, leading to a disqualification.
Reliving the moment in a Dutch television documentary, Kramer said that at the end of the day "I'm responsible for the things I do. I find it difficult to accuse other people."
Kramer's very human, and very sportsmanlike, way of dealing with his defeat won him fans worldwide. A brilliant failure, as Iske would say.
Sven Kramer's coach failed brilliantly as well. He now gives master classes to companies on "dealing with disappointment."
And it's not just the Dutch.
MobileActive.org. in conjunction with The World Bank, now organizes regular "FAILFaires" where people can share their tales of failure in the field of mobile and telecommunications for development work. The FAILFaire website puts it this way: "It's time to bring out the failures, with a sense of humor, and with an honest look at ourselves."
And the Canadian chapter of Engineers without Borders has recently launched AdmittingFailure.com as a similar online space. "Innovation comes with failure," says Ashley Good, the site's managing director. "Whenever you try something new, you take a risk. And risk comes with failure. You probably do some things right and some things wrong. And what's important is reporting on both what succeeded and what failed. And learning from them."
But is all this focus on failure a bit defeatist?
"We are living in this interesting moment of what I've been calling a wrongness zeitgeist, or a failure zeitgeist," says Kathyrn Schulz, author of "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error."
"I worry that it is easy to pay lip service to the glory of wrongness. Yes, we all make mistakes, and things fail, and they go awry, and sort of talk that talk, and yet never really grapple with the deep issues, which is okay – what are the emotional consequences of that, the financial consequences, the material consequences."
The Institute of Brilliant Failures, though, is urging people to dig deep.
"People do not feel the freedom to experiment that we had as children," says Paul Iske. "When children fail, we all applaud, and say okay, you learned something … and somehow we lose that tolerance when people grow up.
Iske says his research shows that the first step toward reclaiming that childlike freedom to fail is laughter.
The next time you screw up, he says, you can start by laughing it off.