The Privilege of Failure

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There’s currently a romanticization, maybe even a fetishization, with failure…

…In the tech space, failure is seen as a noble stumble on the climb to success. And it is—for some. 

In his now-famous Stanford commencement address in 2005, Steve Jobs implores the young graduates to “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”, implying that success is had through a mixture of passion, drive, and willful fearlessness of failure. It was a deeply inspiring speech to people from all walks of life, but as many pointed out in the months after the address was given, it supposes a reality that only a select group of people ever get to experience. The truth is, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” is probably fantastic advice to give people with the benefits of a world-class education, enormous social capital, and years of positive psychological conditioning telling them that they can succeed. To everyone else, it’s a beautiful fallacy.

To Stanford students and many more in the technology community, failure is simply a momentary set back, a learning opportunity, and not a potentially life-altering diagnosis. It’s easy to “fail big and fail often” when you can afford to do so, when the company you founded might fail but is also backed by venture capital and not your family’s life savings. The risk is minimized when you can attempt a new job or career knowing your skills are transferable and can easily command a new job should things not work out. Failure is a luxury afforded to those with privilege, and many of us are not so lucky.

For over 20 years and the entire course of my childhood, my father ran a small dental lab in our hometown. In the early years he worked out of our garage and eventually had enough steady work to move in to a small lab space near our local hospital. The business never made it very far into the black, and often had to be supplemented by my mother’s paycheck. I remember the sounds of my parents arguing in the kitchen after bedtime. I remember not seeing my dad for days at a time because he was at work trying to meet deadlines. The realities of being forced to risk what he couldn’t afford to lose played out as I grew up. His industry began to change, and soon automation and 3D printing made my father’s only skill obsolete. He carried on for as long as he could but was eventually forced to close his business and sell off whatever equipment he had left.

There was a long period of unemployment after that; it was prolonged by the fact that his business connections had long since moved on to newer, cheaper technology, and that his lack of a high school diploma made him almost unemployable. Through what can only be described as grit and God’s grace, he was eventually hired on at a manufacturing plant working with computers. He makes enough to afford rent now, but struggles to keep pace with his colleagues, who are much younger and all have college degrees as well as high school diplomas.

I’m infuriated when I’m forced to listen to colleagues in the tech industry talk about starting and owning their own business as though it would be a fun experiment. They talk about the novelty of their idea, romanticize about being their own boss, and daydream about living out the countless Silicon Valley business platitudes. I wonder if any of them know what it’s like to be forced into a trade at an early age and have to remain there because it’s all they know. I question whether they’ve ever felt the chronic desperation of knowing your business is failing and being totally unequipped to fix it, or having to bear that reality knowing that the livelihood of you and your family is at risk because of it. To my father, failure didn’t mean an opportunity to pivot and try something new. Failure for someone banking on their only opportunity means an end to their dreams, and a lonely struggle to move forward. 

Failure can be a learning opportunity for all, but it’s only a pathway to success for some. To fail and be wealthy, educated, connected, and commonly in the tech space—white, means something much different than to fail and be poor, uneducated, and isolated. These markers of privilege allow some to dust themselves off and keep going where others would be debilitated. They mitigate risk and engender a glow of confidence I’ve only ever seen in people who know they have a safety net. I envy their ability to dare, but it’s not an experience shared by many.

It’s true that you don’t have to be privileged to succeed. America is peppered with rags to riches stories, but their notoriety frequently fools people into believing that they’re commonplace. Our belief in the American Dream often blinds us to the painful reality that most new businesses fail, and that not all good people have happy endings. For many of us, failure comes at a cost. Sometimes, a permanent one. Many in our industry routinely overlook the fact that they have the privilege of failure, and that the numerous advantages insulating them allow failure to be a net positive experience rather than a game-ending one. While we all chat a path toward success, few get the opportunity to steer themselves back if they fall off course.