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 his wife 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 with 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 nearly paralyzed our economy. 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 might 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 percent of the shots you don’t take; if you want big rewards, you need to take big risks; if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, and so on.
Unfortunately, ridiculously skittish stock markets that are sent into convulsions if someone sneezes 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 and, even worse, use tax dollars to prop up the 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 managing failure has usually meant finding someone else to blame. 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 seems 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.