Embracing Failure

SEPTEMBER 16, 2019

The epicenter of innovation, Silicon Valley, and the field of scientific research share an array of parallels. From brilliant minds like Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, to having an enormous impact on our daily lives, by all measures, both scientific endeavors and Silicon Valley are often believed to be examples of great success.
But are they?

Failure is necessary to advance

Silicon Valley is an enormous economic powerhouse and envy of the world. According to the US Federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, the sprawling tech-driven region of California produces $128,308 per capita in gross domestic product (GDP). This places the region’s GDP above many countries. However, the area is not only known for its success.

Silicon Valley is also the epicenter of failure. There’s even an annual conference dedicated to it, appropriately named FailCon. Per the organization’s website, “FailCon was started in San Francisco in 2009 as a response to events repeatedly highlighting only success, while providing no guidance or safe spaces for failure.” Now FailCon holds 8 regional conferences around the world “for technology entrepreneurs, investors, developers, and designers to study their own and others' failures and prepare for success.”

But how much failure can there really be in the most influential place for entrepreneurship in the world? The answer is mindboggling. Investors calculate that startups face a 1 in 2,000 success rate.

Similarly, failure is also a critical element of scientific progress. In her recent column in Nature, researcher Eileen Parkes states that, “comfortable science is an oxymoron. If we want to make new discoveries, that means taking a leap in the dark – a leap we might not take if we’re afraid to fail.”

Science is attempting to reduce the stigma attached to failure. Even time at some scientific conferences is dedicated to papers that were rejected and talks that weren’t deemed interesting enough to make the main program. These are spirited sessions where the packed audience laughs along with self-deprecating humor while paper airplanes zoom through the audience. It’s a way to blow off steam and appreciate the harsh fact that everyone who’s anyone in science knows the sting of failure.

Why embrace failure?

To forge steel, metal is held in flame until it glows red and becomes malleable, it’s then pulled out and hammered into shape, only to douse it in cold water and repeat the process. This brutal process is what creates steel’s superior strength. Failure is a similar process. It develops the skills, persistence and grit needed for scientific success. Through failure scientists learn how to develop alternate approaches, optimize complex experiments, and create a Plan B, or learn when to abandon a path that refuses to bear fruit.

Learning to embrace this process is important for researchers, but it’s even more critical for funding agencies and the governments that back them. This year’s Seoul Forum, an annual event held by Seoul Economic Daily, focused on basic science as an engine for long term national economic prosperity. All scientific speakers talked of patience and the importance of embracing failure. CHOO Miae, member of the National Assembly in the ruling Democratic Party, took the stage with an impassioned statement of encouragement. She urged the audience to “not be afraid to challenge and fail because this will become a precious experience and capacity for our society. Therefore, we are opening a government policy that encourages failure.”

This is a powerful and visionary statement. Naturally it will be tested because the public and political leader have an extreme aversion to the idea of wasting precious taxpayer money, which is how failure is often characterized. Can the public and national leaders understand and even embrace the patience and repeated failure required to make meaningful scientific breakthroughs, ones that may even lead to Korea’s first Nobel Prize?

One truth remains immutable, just like in startups, failure is normal and expected in science.
Will we see FailCon holding an event in Seoul one day? Only time, attitude, and policy will tell.