Meet & Three: Save room for failure

“No room to fail,” “too big to fail,” “failure is not an option” — for obvious reasons, failure isn’t typically celebrated, and yet an entire philosophy has sprung up around the concept, starting in Silicon Valley. Having gone bust is almost a badge of honor among a certain set of entrepreneurs there, or at least a rite of passage. Are they onto something? Should the rest of us be paying closer attention? USC Times invited three highly successful members of the Carolina community to lunch, including a Silicon Valley veteran, a respected oceanographer and a onetime Gamecock football standout, and asked, “Is there room for failure after all?”

Meet our panel: 

Dirk Brown is director of the Faber Entrepreneurship Center and a clinical professor at the Darla Moore School of Business. He is a veteran of Silicon Valley and the founding CEO of Pandoodle Corporation, a digital media technology company with offices in  California, New York and South Carolina.

Tammi Richardson is a professor of marine science in the biology department, and teaches in the marine science program. Her principal research concerns the role phytoplankton photosynthesis plays in removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Langston Moore played four seasons with the Gamecock football team under Lou Holtz before being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003. He spent six seasons in the NFL and played for three franchises. Since 2012, he has been a sideline reporter for the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. He is also the co-author (with former Gamecock Preston Thorne and illustrator/alumnus Kev Roche) of the children’s book “#JustaChicken.”



USC Times: Dirk, let’s talk about Silicon Valley first. When they talk about failure as a badge of honor, what do they understand that the rest of us don’t?

Dirk: You’re really talking about a subset of Silicon Valley, which is this group of people that want to disrupt the world. You’re talking about people that want do something big, and so therefore there’s an inherently larger risk. I absolutely agree, failure in the Valley can be a badge of honor, but it’s got to be failure at having tried something big. And oftentimes, after those failures, we pivot to something that does work. I think the venture capitalists, specifically, now view failure as a step on the path to success. They don’t just celebrate failure in itself.

Not all failure is created equal.

Dirk: Exactly right.

Help us understand the mentality. What’s the climate that allows that thinking?

Dirk: First, there’s a difference between risk and unnecessary risk. When you start working on a project in the Valley, you often do what’s called discovery-driven planning — the first step is to figure out if your assumptions are correct. You have a lot of short iterative steps to get to the end game, and you’re prepared for the reality that some of your assumptions are wrong. The trick is to fail as quickly and as cheaply as possible, and then adjust. So embracing the culture of failure is not about embracing long-term failure. You want to get that reality check and fail fast, then pivot. I’d argue that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are not inherently risk junkies. They’re always looking to mitigate risk and minimize risk, but they realize things are not going to go according to plan. They almost never do.

Tammi: A lot of what Dirk is saying is similar to what we do in science. A lot of small steps lead up to the big discovery. I personally would rather mess up at the small-step stage. Also, we learn from that. We don’t look to fail. We look to find out where the holes are, where the protocol went wrong, so that when we get further along we don’t make the big mistake.

Failure is sort of baked into the scientific process, right? Don’t most experiments fail?

Tammi: I think if they’re well planned, they give you an answer that’s a clear answer. But the idea of the scientific method is to falsify a hypothesis. You want to reject something right off. It’s a strange way of thinking about it, but you’re exactly right.

Dirk: The counterpoint is that fear of failure can paralyze entrepreneurship or scientific research. We can talk about embracing failure, but the other way to think about  it is to say, “Don’t be afraid of failure.”

Tammi: I say this to my graduate students — “Beyond a certain point, you’re all equally smart. Great things happened for you as an undergraduate, and now that you’re in graduate school, it’s simply a matter of, ‘Who’s willing to just keep going?’” If I see somebody in the lab working the morning after some colossal failure, I think, “OK, that person’s going to be a scientist.”

I see a lot of analogies to athletics.

Langston: Absolutely. When Dirk was talking about the pivot — same thing. Think about our new head football coach. Will Muschamp was a head coach before, and he failed — offensively, at least. But now, just a year or so later, he’s back to being a head coach, and one of the first things he said when he got here was, “I should have kept my second offensive coordinator.” He had three offensive coordinators in three years.

Just like in business, a change in leadership can hinder what you’re trying to do. With Will, yeah, he failed the first time, but he learned from that failure,and he’snow implementing those lessons,and implementing them quickly. You have to take the knowledge and pivot very quickly so you can get something from that failure and not let it be this psychological cloud hanging over you.

Let’s personalize this a bit. Langston, you’ve been very successful. You went to the NFL, now you’re in broadcasting, you’ve co-authored a children’s book, but your first  year at Carolina was pretty rough.

Langston: [laughing]: It’s funny what people mean when they say “success.” People think I’m successful because I was in the NFL, but then I hear Dirk talking about Silicon Valley and I think, “Man, he’s successful.” I felt that my NFL career, playing-wise, was terrible. I played for one team that lost every game. From the outsider’s perspective, if you play six or seven years in the NFL, that seems like success, but defining success is up to the individual.

Now, in college, losing every game my first year here with Coach Holtz, that was something that prepared me to be a pro later on. I don’t know too many guys who lost every game their first year of college and then lost every game in their last season in the NFL! But the point is, we all have an opportunity to pull something from our experiences.

Dirk: I’ve been the founding chief executive of three startups. The first one, we raised a lot of money back in the dot-com heyday. We had a company in the U.S. that raised about $26 million, but then a sister company in Taiwan got excited and built a big factory that was over a $100 million. Overall, we raised about $126 million and had a lot of investor enthusiasm. But we stalled out. We couldn’t make deliveries. There’s an old adage — “A startup CEO sleeps like a baby. He wakes up every two hours crying.” That’s the life I was living for a while.

The company survived, but in my world you’ve either got to go public, or sell to another company, or at least create a strong dividend chain for the investors, and that didn’t happen. So really it was a failure for me and for the investors. And actually you feel worse for the investors who committed to you. That’s the part that really hurts. But I looked at what I had done and what I wanted to do, and what I really wanted to do was change the world, so I started another company. At the end of my life I’ll regret the missteps and failures less than having not had the courage to do whatever I could to change the world.

Langston: My freshman year I came here as a defensive lineman and then we lost everybody on the offensive line. I had to play a position that I wasn’t here to play and I wanted to leave. But as an individual I learned so much. Later, I changed back to defensive line. A lot of guys would say I missed out on a whole year’s worth of film for the draft, but I got to think about how an offensive lineman prepares. Mentally, it wasn’t wasted. When you get to the NFL combines they sit you down with all these different teams and every team is different. Some bring in trial lawyers to drill you. They want to see how you react under pressure. I was prepared because Lou Holtz never took a day off. He was always on. Four years of that helped me become a pro. There were so many guys in the NFL with so much talent, but they couldn’t even get to work on time. Talent carried them for a while, but eventually that talent dies off.

Dirk: One of my advantages was living in Silicon Valley, so there was no stigma to my failure. People still would give me money. I could still get investments, people would still believe in me because the society understood what I was trying to do was high risk. I think that societies and cultures that encourage that attitude are richer and progress much faster than those that are paralyzed by the fear of failure.

Tammi: But aren’t those sort of rare communities? In the broader context, we’re programmed to fear failure.

Dirk: I agree, but I think the world is changing. People are starting to take a more rational view of failure. It’s becoming, I think, less of a stigma worldwide.

You can almost think of Silicon Valley as a sort of utopia for failure …

Dirk: That’s what it is. In some industries, though — academia, for example —

There are so many other variables —

Dirk: Tenure.

Tammi: Yeah. That’s where I was going.

Right. It’s a different kind of community.  So what, if anything, can academia take from this discussion?

Tammi: I think we can apply a general attitude. Writing proposals is a good example. Since 1998, I’ve written 63 proposals. I got 16 of those funded, of various sizes. That works out to about a 25 percent success rate — 25.4 to be exact. I did the arithmetic this morning. So I looked at my graduate students and said, “Hey, for every four proposals I’ve written I’ve gotten one funded,” and they looked at me like, “What?” But that’s actually pretty good. With the NSF, for my field, they fund about 20 percent on average. You’ve just got to keep banging your head against the wall and a hole will develop. It might be in the wall, it might be in your head, but eventually something will happen.

Langston: So Dirk, when you’re out there trying to raise money, how does that compare to what Tammi is saying? When you’re out there going to meeting after meeting, pitch after pitch —

Dirk: When you’re pitching to venture capitalists you probably do at least 20 or 30 before you get a strong interest. That’s why tenacity is essential — for an athlete, an academic, an entrepreneur. When you give up, that’s when you fail. But it’s also a question of it being the right time, of the investment pieces all being in the right place. One of the biggest reasons new ventures fail is they don’t get funded. They run out of cash. That’s why entrepreneurs eat a lot of ramen.

Tammi: [laughing]: Sounds like a graduate student!

Dirk: But then if you have a culture where you’re used to small failures, and you see that those small failures don’t destroy the larger project, or don’t destroy you, it can strengthen you. Culturally, and also individually, you start to realize that failure is part of a bigger journey. At the same time, if the stakes seem too high, it can paralyze us. Just being afraid of failure can embed failure into it whatever it is you’re doing, being afraid to fail can cause you to fail.

Two of you work with students here at the university. Langston, you’ve co-authored a children’s book. How do you talk to young people about risk and failure?

Langston: When Preston and I were working on our book, we started talking about Coach Holtz and all these great leaders we’ve known. We wanted to make another “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” 400 pages, and it was taking forever, so we decided to do a kids book. We thought, “This will be easy. It will take two months.” It ended up taking four years. But we didn’t know that until we had too much in to go back.

Talking to kids, I just try to encourage ambition. If they have big dreams and they don’t have a lot of responsibilities yet, if they don’t have families, don’t have kids, I say,  “Do it now. It’ll be a lot harder when you’ve got a newborn and a mortgage.”

Dirk: I think if you ask most young people what they want from life, they’ll give you some version of “I want to change the world.” If that’s the ultimate success, all these failures along the way shouldn’t be so meaningful. In fact, they may lead you to the larger success.

Tammi: One thing I like about working with kids is that a lot of them are fearless.

Dirk: [laughing]: We educate that out of them — and we don’t talk enough about the small failures. We don’t talk about the failures along the way to success.

Langston: Edison found 10,000 ways the light bulb didn’t work!

Tammi: I have lab books back to when I was a TA in grad school. One of them is tagged “show to grad students.” You often get grad students coming in looking all glum, “I’m a failure, yadda yadda, I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life,” and I pull this book out. Scribbled across the top of this one page it says EVERYTHING I DID YESTERDAY IS WRONG! Clearly I was having a terrible day. But I love to show it to my students because a lot of them don’t think that I’ve been through that. I was three years into a Ph.D. program and switched advisers because I was going nowhere. It was either start a new project with a new adviser or quit. I chose to start a new project.

So Langston, you talk about taking four years to write a book, and Tammi, you switched dissertation advisers three years in. But Dirk, you mentioned the concept of failing fast. On the one hand, we’re advocating perseverance and tenacity. On the other, you run the risk of staying in a project too long, which is a habit Silicon Valley wants to break. How do we resolve that tension? How do we know when to cut bait?  

Tammi: Oh, that’s a tough one, “How do you know”? I would talk to different people —  your committee, your colleagues, your family — but a lot of it is your gut. When I switched advisers, I just knew, and if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be sitting here.

Dirk: Every morning, you decide what to do that day. To do it properly, I guess we could all do a probabilistic weighted average of all the variables and then follow that path. Obviously, we can’t do that, but I think we do that intuitively. There’s a breakdown where external pressures impact that intuition. If society punishes you severely for failure, or the perception of failure, you’re more likely to avoid those options that will lead to society punishing you. On the other hand, if society doesn’t punish you, you may look at the situation and decide to pivot. If you think about the ultimate success on the distant horizon, you stop worrying so much about the smaller failures, especially once you realize you can fail soon and fail cheap. The decision becomes harder once you’ve got all these sunk costs.

Langston: Great point. I see so many guys who say over and over, “I just gotta make it to the NFL, if I can just get to the NFL.” They haven’t played football in seven or eight years, but they’re still hanging on. So how long do you hold onto that dream? That just depends.

Tammi: A related concept is being able to take criticism. Along with being able to sustain multiple small, or maybe even big failures, you’ve got to be able to take criticism. In science, if you can’t take criticism, you’re toast. Every day it’s, “Oh you need to rewrite this,” “Oh, this part’s wrong.” Again, when a student writes something and I rip it to shreds, but they’re right back at it the next day — those are the ones who are going to succeed.

Dirk: Oftentimes failure is contextual. There are some hard elements — financial security, job security — that are fundamental. But a lot of the context is in your head: “How is society going to judge me?” “What will my friends think of me?” If you can get out of your head, that will make a big difference.

What you perceive as failure or success may not be perceived that way by someone else.

Langston: When I talk to kids, the first thing they want to know is, “Did you win the Super Bowl?” Well, no, I didn’t even come close. I never even went to the playoffs. Yeah, I played in the NFL, but I played for all the bad teams! But then we start deconstructing. I played for a lot of great franchises. Seeing how they do business was very instructive, and on a personal level it helped me to think about how I manage my time, how I conduct myself.

Failure is the stuff nobody wants to see. We want to see the confetti, or the guy holding up the big check. We want to hear about the valuation when your company goes public. Success is easy — just don’t give up and eventually you’ll get there. But where your mind is, the lead up to the big breakthrough, that’s what’s interesting.

USC Times

Got a taste for intelligent conversation? Want a free lunch for yourself and two colleagues? RSVP with your Meet & Three idea to Craig Brandhorst. You will find the Meet & Three feature in the monthly faculty and staff magazine USC Times.

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