Of successes and failures

The learning step (from failure) and the reflection step (from success) are the true stepping-stones to fulfilment


In politics, Hillary Clinton’s 10-year journey to become the first woman president of the US came to an abrupt end. Photo: Reuters
In politics, Hillary Clinton’s 10-year journey to become the first woman president of the US came to an abrupt end. Photo: Reuters

It is that time of year. Time to take stock of the year gone by and to commit to ideas, projects and relationships to be done or to fix those undone.

2016 has been a year like many others. There have been many successes and failures: in politics, in war, in peace, among corporations and in the general business of life.

Take for instance the announcement earlier this month that clinical trials for a promising new drug for Alzheimer’s disease had ended in failure. Eli Lilly reported the full results for its experimental drug treatment for Alzheimer’s, Solanezumab.

Alois Alzheimer, the Bavarian physician, first discovered the disease over a 100 years ago in his 50-year-old female patient with symptoms of paranoia, disturbed sleep, confusion, memory loss and aggression. An autopsy revealed abnormal shrinkage and neurological plaque deposits around nerve cells.

Lilly’s drug was an attempt to target and dissolve the amyloid plaques. An early trial showed promise with a subset of patients with mild symptoms, but a new larger trial has ended in failure.

Lilly has shut down the trial and plans to lay off hundreds of employees. It could well mean the end to other “attack the plaque” treatments for the disease. Many years of research and development have come to a dead end.

In politics, Hillary Clinton’s 10-year journey to become the first woman president of the US came to an abrupt end. Whether the end came because of a popular-nationalist wave or it was merely because of tactical missteps in campaigning is now relegated to an academic debate. Widely expected to win, she came up short.

In Brazil, the first woman to occupy the post of president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached from her post a few days after the Rio de Janeiro Olympics ended.

In India, the jury is still out on the demonetisation gamble. The rare step is popular with the masses but the extreme inconvenience caused has led to a lot of finger-pointing and nervousness in government. With the passage of time will it be considered a success or failure?

Folk-rock singer and songwriter Bob Dylan was the reluctant and unusual winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, while Han Kang became the first South Korean to win the Man Booker International Prize for her translated book called The Vegetarian.

Juan Manuel Santos, the current president of Colombia, won the Nobel Prize for peace even though the deal to end the 50-year civil war with the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was not ratified in a referendum. That was success amidst failure. A revised peace deal was approved by the Colombian Congress only last week.

Success and failure are deeply intertwined in the history of thinking and writing. William Shakespeare wrote about life’s trials and tribulations, successes and failures in many of his books. In the Twelfth Night, Malvolio says, “...be not afraid of greatness, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”.

In modern writing, success and failure are often discussed together. Centuries ago, Gautama Buddha rather cryptically but profoundly said that “there is no path to happiness, happiness is the path”.

Contemporary corporate dashboards are filled with key performance indicators and success metrics. Even innovation cells have success metrics, making the often-serendipitous path of new discovery less likely.

Some avant-garde firms are beginning to measure failure, believing that failure is a necessary condition for success. Paradoxically then, both success and failure have become fashionable.

Is the received wisdom that failure is a stepping-stone to success the right perspective? Or are there instances when “failure is not an option,” as Nasa flight controller Jerry Bostick stated during the mission to bring the damaged Apollo 13 back to Earth?

Failure is deemed a deficiency by many, says Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures In The Margin Of Error. “Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list,” Schulz says. “It is our meta-mistake: We are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition.”

In a success-biased hyper competitive world we seem to have two types of people. One that believes that failure is not an option and another that believes that one must fail—fail early, fail often, fail forward—to succeed.

If there is a failure in those two views, it is that we do not often speak about success and how to deal with it. It would seem more appropriate to talk about how not to make success a stepping-stone to failure.

Failure by itself doesn’t guarantee future success—that would be a tautological inconsistency. It provides the opportunity to study what went wrong and to learn from it.

The learning step (from failure) and the reflection step (from success) are the true stepping-stones to fulfilment.

My best to you all for a restful, reflective end to 2016.

P.S. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts,” said Winston Churchill.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s previous columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com.

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