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Andy Pattantyus: Freedom to fail — the greatest gift

Right Here, Right Now

Posted: July 1, 2010 4:26 p.m.
Updated: July 2, 2010 4:55 a.m.

For most of human history, the life of children was tough, an almost daily stream of sharp elbows, bullies, getting knocked down, getting smacked and hearing harsh words from overworked parents.

By age 6, a child was keenly aware of three things: The world is a harsh place, the world does not revolve around the child and the world is not fair. For survival, the sooner a child learned this, the better.

Instinctively, parents want to protect their kids from death and physical harm, and also want them to be “winners.”

Today, a child striving not to lose has devolved into the parent’s “must win,” where children cannot experience failure. Little Jimmy cannot lose a T-ball game, lest his “self-esteem” be damaged. Winners or losers, all kids go home with a trophy. “Everybody is a winner” clearly diminishes the real winner. The loser is deprived of experiencing failure and subsequent aspirations for success.

Among our teenagers, fear of failure is epidemic, and the pressure to win is overwhelming. My teacher friends tell me stories of 10th graders handing in blank work sheets, quizzes and tests. Why? Choosing not to participate is preferable to risking failure. Others, pressured with “must win,” instinctively cheat to win. They don’t even try on their own, for fear they might be wrong.

The common theme in this environment is the absence of “permission to fail,” which has become the “requirement to succeed.” Failing honestly is valued less than success by cheating. When success is no longer earned by persisting in the face of many failures, we have lost what has been an essential component of the human condition for millennia.

So many parents are so overprotective that we are creating an entire generation of people with a lifelong disability. Let’s explore failure a bit further.

Failure is an essential component of success, because success is not possible without the learning that comes from failure. We don’t succeed in spite of failure; we succeed because of it. The successful entrepreneur is the one that goes through the cycles of failure the quickest.

The success mindset is the result of an individual’s response to failure. Those who get accustomed to hard knocks and who “own” their failures become resilient, rebounding to come back and fight another day.

Negative connotations of the word “failure” may be why so many stridently avoid it. What does “failure” really mean? Something you attempted didn’t work.

The same sequence of events can be described by the word “experiment,” which has a more positive connotation because we all know the outcome of an experiment is uncertain. So you tried something, and it did not work. So what? In the experiment, there is no shame in trying something.

Consider Thomas Edison, who built hundreds of light bulbs that fell short of his goals before finding the right design. Each time Edison “failed,” he learned. Having eliminated what didn’t work, he eventually converged on a solution, and succeeded.

People who fail daily are pushing the envelope very hard, constantly testing their ideas and suppositions in the crucible of the free market, eager to compete against others. Their pace of learning is turbo-charged. They are constantly in search of the facts, and create experiments to reveal the facts. While “failing” many times a day, these successful folks do not consider themselves failures.

People who have never failed have not done anything. How will the coddled 26 year old handle the first inevitable failure? Get up, dust off, and try again, or curl up in a fetal position?

How does all this relate to politics?

Frederic Bastiat said, “Society has for its element man, who is a free agent; and since man is free, he may choose — since he may choose, he may be mistaken — since he may be mistaken, he may suffer.”

Folks who believe in American exceptionalism believe that equality is equal opportunity to succeed or fail, not equal results or outcomes.

People who value liberty value failure. Those who value the nanny state don’t dare to fail, or haven’t learned from failure.

From parent to child, from boss to employee, the greatest gift we can give is freedom to fail, which is also the freedom to succeed.

Andy Pattantyus lives and works in Santa Clarita and is the President of Strategic Modularity Inc. He can be reached at His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Right Here, Right Now” appears Fridays and rotates among local Republicans.


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