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Big success is often built on big failure

Big Success is Often Built on Big Failure

Remember the Apple Newton? No? Well, you’re far from alone. Apple’s foray into the personal digital assistant market launched in 1993 and was soon fodder for stand-up comics and at least one Doonesbury strip that lampooned its handwriting-recognition software.

The software improved; the Newton’s public image did not, and Steve Jobs pulled the plug in 1998. In the decade that followed, however, the fresh thinking and technical innovations that produced the Newton led Apple to create a pair of better-known products: the iPhone and the iPad.

Like Jobs, Walt Disney suffered an early failure. In 1922, he founded his first animation business, Laugh-O-Gram, only to see it collapse within a year, sunk by his own inept management. Undaunted, six months later he partnered with his brother, Roy, a more astute businessman, to form Disney Brothers Studio—the venture that would become the world’s largest media conglomerate.

A bit closer to home, there is Fred Schmid, who graduated from Northeastern with a master’s in mechanical engineering in 1967. (See a related story here.) In the mid-1960s, Schmid was working at the U.S. Army materials research center in Watertown, Massachusetts, where he toiled on a project to grow thick crystals for use as armor. It failed, but Schmid believed the concept still held promise. In 1969, he invented a heat-exchanger method for growing sapphire crystals of uncommon size, strength, and clarity—unsuitable for armor, but perfect for optical uses that range from submarine windows to lasers and LEDs.

Schmid founded a thriving company based on his breakthrough and led it for 40 years until he sold the firm in 2010. Explaining his determination to stick with that apparent dead-end project nearly 50 years ago, Schmid said, “The worst that could happen is that I would learn a lot.”

Whether you are a Master of the Universe like Disney and Jobs or an entrepreneur like Schmid, true learning requires you to take a risk, push beyond your comfort zone, and adapt based on the failures that often result. The willingness to take a risk in school, on the job, or in life is critical to growth and learning, says Cigdem Talgar, director of Northeastern’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research.

She says that in virtually every line of work “you continuously have to take on something new and challenging in order to keep advancing.”

Herein lies the rub: The potential for failure, which is built into every risk, breeds caution in most of us, and with good reason. As cultural historian Scott Sandage notes in his book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, failure “hits home; we take it personally. To know a ‘great loser’—a father, neighbor, a classmate—is to glimpse our own worst future.”

But why should we equate failure—which most often describes an event and not an entire life—with loser
status?

Prepared for the Inevitable

We all learn in elementary school that in science, every disproved hypothesis—every so-called failure—is valuable because it brings you closer to your goal of discovery.

Psychology professor Adam Reeves takes this idea a step further with his doctoral students, requiring them to take on at least one research project that carries a high probability of failure.

“Failure is inevitable,” says Reeves. “Without experiencing it in the relatively protected environment of the university, students who have only succeeded during their PhD years will not be prepared for failure when it happens in a real-world research position.”

Such an event can cause a vulnerable young researcher to crumble. Reeves says he has seen that happen; it pushed one of his most promising students—one who’d experienced only success during his student years—to leave the field entirely.

But few fields outside of science share that benign view of failure as a necessary speed bump on the road to discovery and innovation.

As it happens, one arena that does is entrepreneurship. Tucker Marion, an associate professor who teaches in Northeastern’s nationally known undergraduate entrepreneurship program, sounds very much like Reeves when he says, “If you’re going out there and doing risky things, failure is inevitable.”

Innovative companies—and by extension, the people who found them—share a tolerance for risk and failure, says Marion. The university encourages its young entrepreneurs to seek out and experience both, while their tumbles off the high wire are still cushioned by the university’s safety net.

IDEA is part of the fabric, a student-run organization that provides startup funding and consulting help for Northeastern’s substantial community of student entrepreneurs. Among its benefits, IDEA gives students a taste of what the venture capital world is like without some of the Shark Tank aspects.

Ben Anderson had what entrepreneurs call a “good fail” with IDEA. The 2012 music industry graduate is a co-founder of Amino, a mobile social-media platform that links people with niche interests like animé and the TV series Dr. Who.

In his senior year, Anderson and his partners spent many hours preparing a presentation to the IDEA board on Amino, as part of an application for gap funding. The board turned them down flat.

“You need to understand that, in the early days of a new venture, every negative can be crushing to a startup,” he says. “It was potentially a huge failure for us.”

But the Amino team demonstrated its resilience by determining exactly where they’d fallen short: They had not given enough thought to the revenue stream—essentially, how the app would make money. Addressing that issue, they won their funding on the second attempt, a crucial small victory that has led to a much bigger one. Amino recently attracted $1.65 million in funding from a group of high-roller investors.

“As an entrepreneur, you learn to appreciate the lows as much as the highs,” says Anderson. “I feel I learn more when I fail than when I succeed. I don’t feel bad about failures at all.”

Failure as Opportunity

While most of us find it difficult to wholly embrace Anderson’s viewpoint, for many members of the millennial generation, failure—even a minor one—is simply not an option.

This is the generation—born between the early 1980s and 2000—that famously won trophies just for showing up. It is a generation of achievers who arrive at college conditioned to believe that the high expectations they hold for themselves will always be fulfilled—but seldom having had those expectations truly tested.

So what happens when the trophies stop coming; when some of the most talented members of a whole generation are unable to manage failure or risk as learning opportunities?

Jeff Selingo, contributing editor to The Chronicle of Higher Education and its former top editor, says the concern is well-founded. Speaking at a Northeastern-sponsored panel discussion of higher-education issues in April, Selingo said, “We are not placing students into unfamiliar situations.” As a result, they don’t experience circumstances that force them to navigate the unknown and push through the setbacks that often occur.

Employers are taking notice. A Northeastern-sponsored survey of senior executives across the United States shows that one-third believe most recent college graduates lack vital workplace skills, including adaptability and the ability to take a career punch. Individual educators at the secondary-school level are meeting this issue head-on.

Dominic Randolph, headmaster of the Riverdale Country School in New York City, is collaborating with psychology faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and with the KIPP charter schools to introduce character measures like optimism and self-motivation into Riverdale’s curriculum.

The goal, he says, is to help his academically talented students become more intrepid and curious learners and to develop their capability to grow rather than shrink from failures.

Students at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum also need an extra dose of grit, says Sheila Harrity, EDD’13—not because they’ve grown up in a suburban cocoon of praise, but because they lack examples of success in their communities.

Harrity, the award-winning principal of Worcester Technical High School in Massachusetts, says the issue for her students, including many academic high achievers, is that they don’t feel deserving of success, and self-doubt can lead to self-sabotage. (See a related story on page 10.)

She started off trying to tackle the problem by giving lectures. Now she gives role models, bringing in an impressive lineup of speakers whose own failure-to-success stories “get to the core of our kids’ belief system.” The speakers include such luminaries as Gen. Colin Powell and Dr. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who inspired the movie Gifted Hands.

“When setbacks happen, we want to give them the right ways to think about them,” says Harrity, “to acquire resiliency to life’s challenges.”

But there is a century-old educational approach already in place that promotes resiliency—and learning—in the face of failure: experiential learning. Its value can be boiled down to one simple question: What happens when students have to put something more on the line than a grade?

The Crucible of Co-op

Maya Genovesi, SSH’11, was a few months into a co-op as a counselor at a residential treatment facility for mentally ill adolescents when her boss pulled her aside to offer constructive, blunt criticism of her contributions. Genovesi, then in her junior year as a dual psychology and human services major, says that it was hard at the time for her to get past her fear of failure and see the lessons being offered to her.

“It shook my confidence,” she recalls. “It was the first time I’d worked with a residential mental-health population, so it really affected my professional perspective.”

After talking with her co-op adviser, Genovesi awoke to the fact that job success isn’t just about a person’s ability: It’s also about understanding and adapting to a hierarchy, supervisory styles, and workplace politics.

But the deeper insight she developed over time illustrates how valuable a co-op can be, even when all is not smooth and easy.

Genovesi—who recently completed master’s programs in social work and public health at NYU in preparation for a career in trauma counseling—says, “I realized that it is very easy in the clinical professions for trauma to affect the staff as well as clients—that it can create unhealthy dynamics in stressful situations. It’s something I’ll need to watch out for in office dynamics and not just in relationships with clients.”

Every year, some 8,000 Northeastern students work a co-op job, and each one is a potential story like Genovesi’s: risks taken, obstacles encountered, and lessons learned as students face consequential choices in the terra incognita of the professional workplace.

This makes co-op an out-of-the-box academic challenge, says Lisa Worsh, Genovesi’s co-op coordinator in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

When one of her students faces a setback on co-op, “I try to get them to step back from it, not make it about them but look at it from the employer’s point of view,” says Worsh. In short, she encourages them to treat it as on-the-job learning and not as a personal failure. “And it’s better to learn that lesson here, where you have a support system in place.”

Scott Murcko appreciates that support system every time he starts a new clinical rotation at University of Queensland Medical School in Australia. The 2009 Northeastern graduate has his own failure-to-success story, and it shows another facet of co-op: It can signal to students when they’ve allowed fear of failure to put them on the wrong career path.

Murcko was an uninspired criminal justice major, finding no reward in class or on his co-ops. He grew so apathetic in his second co-op as a background screener for a security consultant that he was fired after three months.

At that rock-bottom point, Murcko admitted to his co-op adviser, Richard Conley, that he’d always been interested in medicine but never had confidence in his ability to navigate the tough science courses.

It was too late to switch majors, so Conley did what he could—helping Murcko get a position as an emergency medical technician for the remaining three months of that co-op period, pushing him to take as many science courses as he could manage, and finding Murcko a postbaccalaureate science-prep program designed specifically for medical school aspirants like him.

Today, he’s in his surgical rotation at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, with less than 18 months to go until graduation.

“Sometimes,” says Murcko, “you have to make a wrong choice before you can make the right one.”

– By John Ombelets

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