by Robert Roach, Senior Researcher
Most of us are familiar with a little blue and yellow can of spray in our garages or under the kitchen sink called WD-40. That is the trademarked name of a lubricating spray developed in 1953 by a Californian named Norm Larsen. It was originally designed to repel water and prevent corrosion, and later was found to have a variety of practical household uses. WD-40 stands for “Water Displacement – 40th Attempt.”
Fortieth attempt? You almost hear Mrs. Larsen yelling down into the workshop: “Norm, sweetie, forget it! You’ve tried over 30 formulas … it’s not gonna work!”
As investors and taxpayers, we are more likely to identify with Norm’s wife than Norm. If success is not ensured, we get antsy. We want our mutual funds to go up and never down. We want ventures supported by government dollars to be a sure thing. This is not, however, how you succeed and make money in the long-term in a highly competitive and ever changing global economy.
The aversion to failure in our society has gone too far. We’ve become so intolerant of mistakes and errors that we go to enormous lengths to either hide them or pass them off as success in disguise. This cult of nothing-less-than-success undermines the kind of risk-taking needed to develop new processes, new products, new markets and new jobs.
Fortunately, Canadian economic history has its share of “mavericks”—individuals who went against the herd mentality, took risks, and accomplished great things. They also failed a lot along the way. The now-famous Leduc No. 1 oil well, drilled in Alberta in 1947, followed a string of dry holes. Had the original prospectors given up in fear of finding yet another dry hole, they never would have struck it rich in Leduc, Canada’s oil industry may not have gotten off the ground, and the country’s prosperity would be much less than it is today.
There is a long list of clichés that apply here: “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” “if you want big rewards, you need to take big risks,” “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” and so on.
Unfortunately, ridiculously skittish stock markets that go up and down if someone sneezes unexpectedly and a culture that favours economic comfort over financial adventure have pushed Canada’s mavericks to the sidelines. “Stick with what ya know” is the mantra of the Canadian economy. As a result, both public and private investment in bold new ventures is in very short supply.
Many readers will wrongly conclude that we are suggesting that we should wallow in failure, follow every wild goose that comes along from growing oranges in Saskatchewan to building hotels in space, and use tax dollars to prop up incompetence. But this is exactly the opposite of what is being proposed.
Canadians need a higher tolerance for failure because this is an unpleasant, yet necessary, means by which we succeed. This may be a hard principle to accept in a culture where you have to appear like you never fail or, at least, be good at blaming someone else when things go wrong. But tolerating failure doesn’t end with the failed attempt. The failure needs to be accompanied by learning: why didn’t that attempt work? What did I learn that I can apply to my next attempt?
Ultimately, Canada’s economic progress will rely on risk-taking. An entrepreneur has an idea, a scientist has a hunch, a designer has a vision. To act on any of these notions, someone needs to stick his neck out and take the chance, failure or not. But if the consequence of failure seem overly dire, it will crush the incentive for the risk-taker to try anything less than a sure bet. And the economy will suffer.
As Brazilian architect Ruy Ohtake said, “Every project should be a little bit impossible. That is how we progress.” But those little bits of impossibility along the way will result in some failed attempts.
Failure should not be devastating. Taking a chance on a hunch should not be punished with a zero-tolerance approach to failure. We can’t sit and wallow in failure, but we can come to embrace failure for what it is—a necessary stepping stone to success.
This article is based on a forthcoming book entitled “Rewriting the Code: Changing Canada’s Economic DNA” by Todd Hirsch and Robert Roach. Robert Roach is the Senior Researcher at the Canada West Foundation and Todd Hirsch is the Senior Economist at ATB Financial.