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WiredUK: 'Embracing failure' isn't the right way to succeed

A popular meme of modern business is "learning from failure". Failing (which has been around as long as succeeding) is suddenly in vogue. Business schools teach it and corporate leaders preach it. "LFF" is very SEO, with over two million hits on Google. Failure's mojo lies in its ubiquity. There's the global financial crisis (too big to fail) and scandals that keep cable news afloat. We have failed states and bankrupt cities. More restaurants fail than thrive, and the same goes for startups, new products and lottery ticket holders.

Inevitably then, failure needed some spin. Suddenly, setbacks are ladders instead of chutes. The new narrative is that today's mistakes stage tomorrow's triumphs. But does a culture that venerates failing make us too secure in our insecurity? And would there be less failing to begin with if we admitted what we don't know in the first place?

This question surfaced in our research of 64,000 people in 13 countries and interviews with some of the most innovative leaders around the world. Along with my co-author, Michael D'Antonio, we studied how societies view modern leadership. And we uncovered the rising importance of what people describe as feminine skills and competencies such as "selflessness", "candor", "empathy" and "humility".

In fact, these traits were the most correlated to the ideal modern leader, while "ego", "independence" and "pride" were the least. Not that society wants leaders to be soft (the people we met certainly weren't). But the most innovative people are disrupting and creating by being open, honest and even vulnerable.

Such was the case of a scientist we met in Berlin, Dr Ijad Madisch. A Harvard-trained virologist, he told us he kept getting "stuck" in his experiments. But when he reached out to his colleagues for help, he was chastised. Scientists were supposed to project an air of supreme confidence, which Madisch found to be impractical. "For most scientific researchers, time has the highest value, and asking for help can save you lots of it," he said. "I always tried to network when I found I couldn't get a problem solved."

What science needed, Madisch realised, was a community where the work could take precedence over ego. So he started one. ResearchGate is a sophisticated kind of Facebook, which now boasts three million members from 193 countries. "I expected negative things, with people saying, 'Ah, you're stupid.' Instead, people ask, 'Did you try this? Did you try that?'" Madisch hopes that scientists will one day crowdsource a Nobel Prize and the names will scroll down like credits at the end of a movie.

That three million scientists are of like minds speaks to an increasingly social and interdependent world that prizes cooperation and the possibilities it presents. In our surveys, 84 per cent of people said, "A successful career today requires collaborating and sharing credit with others."

Indeed, learning from mistakes will always be part of life's instruction. But as business jargon, it enables a culture of hubris. The permission to fail (often, early, etc) only breeds selfishness and isolation. Better to disrupt our ego and be the smartest person in the room who doesn't have all the answers.

This article first appeared on WiredUK.

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