MICHAEL GOODWIN: Mourning the Loss of Freedom to Fail

At first glance, the idea that we are losing the freedom to fail sounds like a reason to celebrate. It prompts visions of Utopia, or at least of Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average.

It is perhaps even stranger to claim that we should actually fear losing the freedom to fail. Most of us are hardwired to avoid losing, and giving up the prospect does not logically seem a sacrifice.

Losing the chance to fail should also mean we’re guaranteed to win, right?

Wrong. Misguided social perfectionists have given failure a bad rap, and too many of us have bought into their foolish view.

Declaring failure a cruel and permanent blot on the self-esteem of those who don’t measure up, the new social perfectionists are making a run at banning the idea of losing. In their vision, failure has no place in the civilized world, so they are determined to eliminate it.

The bid certainly has appeal, and the movement enjoys a growing and diverse congregation. Part of the popularity is owed to the seductive wrapping of compassion, which promises to soften life's blows if not prevent them altogether. It’s not just that you should be able to have your cake and eat it too.

You should be able to have your cake, eat it, and not get fat. You should also have a house you can’t afford.

These are the salad days of the compassion industry, which is stimulating an entitlement mania for individuals and, lately, taxpayer bailouts for both irresponsible borrowers and businesses deemed “too big to fail.”

Planned safety nets built on universal contributions, like Social Security, are one thing, but emergency bailouts of whole industries and millions of homeowners are quite another—especially when those who played by the old rules of thrift and sacrifice are forced to pay for the rescue of those who didn’t.

The economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009 put on vivid display this clash of old versus new American values.

What started as a housing bust turned into a credit and financial crisis. With the collapse of Wall Street investment banks Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, widespread fears of a return to the Great Depression understandably led to calls for Washington to do something to stop the slide.

Bankruptcy laws were written for this very kind of moment, but many who bet the farm and lost demanded exemptions as America’s addiction to borrowing swiftly morphed into an expectation of bailouts.

The government obliged, as first hundreds of billions, then trillions of taxpayer dollars and guarantees were poured into the breach. Time and again, the argument was that failure of key firms or industries would bring down the system.

When it came to individual homeowners, proponents of promiscuous aid argued that government had an absolute duty to help virtually all those facing foreclosure. Everybody had a stake, we were assured, in preventing failure.

Letting someone fail when we have the power to prevent it seems so robber-baron-ish, so social Darwinist, especially when the shock waves could ripple across the country.

This Gilded Age comes equipped with safety nets for those in danger of losing their gilt.

These days wherever you look, failure is an endangered experience.

Unions, once the champion of the oppressed, increasingly fight for rigid protections that put the lazy worker on an equal footing with the productive one. Consider that Detroit automakers had a jobs bank program that paid extra workers for not working, sometimes for years. No wonder the companies went bust.

But Detroit’s policies pale next to the social promotion movement that has turned much of our nation’s educational system into a global joke.

Instead of demanding that students meet academic requirements that will prepare them for college or the workforce, today’s edu-crats find it easier just to pass little Johnny along, even when he is illiterate. And when Johnny gets bigger and still can’t read, they pass him along again, sending him out into the world, which usually finds it has no use for him.

All this is done, of course, in the name of compassion. Armies of psychologists and other captains of the self-esteem movement wail that holding Johnny back until he is actually ready for the next grade will destroy his psyche. In the real world, self-esteem comes from mastering new skills and achieving goals.

But the anti-failure forces have turned the idea on its head: They think they can give Johnny self-esteem first, and only later ask him to earn it.

As the late William Henry III argued forcefully in his groundbreaking 1994 book, "In Defense of Elitism:"

“We have taken the legal notion that all men are created equal to its illogical extreme, seeking not just equality of justice in the courts but equality of outcomes in almost every field of endeavor.”

This disastrous egalitarianism, which Henry blamed on a multicultural movement to delegitimize individual accomplishment, led by those who couldn’t compete, is now so entrenched that many of Johnny’s teachers are themselves products of the same social promotion disaster. Naturally, flunking bad teachers—and booting them out of the schools where they don’t belong—runs afoul of ironclad union protections. Better that all students should just be passed along so teachers can keep their jobs.

Nationally, upward of 60 percent of American high school graduates entering two-year community colleges do not meet entrance standards and need remediation work.

The New York City experience is as instructive as it is disheartening.

In 2008, four years after the city supposedly ended social promotion policies, nearly 75 percent of high school grads entering the City University’s community colleges needed remediation in reading, writing, or math. Many needed it in all three. -- That is the case even though the community colleges have open enrollment, meaning the only requirement for admission is a high school diploma.

As part of the so-called reforms, Mayor Bloomberg’s education department created report cards for schools and promised teacher and principal bonuses in schools that met benchmarks. Talk about grade inflation!

For 2008, 97 percent of the schools received either an A or a B, forcing the cash-strapped city to pay out as much as $35 million in bonuses. The scam—that’s what it is—recalls the joke among factory workers in the waning days of the Soviet Union: we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.

So it is in many of America’s schools, where every tough new standard is hollowed out by an even stronger push to make sure no-body fails to meet it.

Nearly all education officials and politicians clamor to raise student achievement and the graduation rate because they understand a solid education is needed for someone to be a productive citizen in the twenty-first century. These proponents, in effect, recognize the value of success.

But they want it guaranteed and without allowing the chance for failure. By lowering standards and bending the rules to boost the graduation rate, they are creating a Potemkin village of success. There is still massive failure, but it will be revealed only later.

The fraud is a perfect illustration of the doomed and misguided zeal to sandpaper failure from American life. Students waste their educational years and are not forced to develop the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for life after school.

Most realize they have been duped only when they collide with a wall that hasn’t been lowered to meet their stunted abilities.

Had they been allowed to fail earlier, they would have a far better chance of leading productive lives as adults.

Yet there is a winner in this scam: bad teachers. Here, too, failure is not an option. Those who can’t do the job are almost all protected by tenure rules that make it nearly impossible to fire them.

In most years, only about 1 percent of New York’s eighty thousand teachers are given an unsatisfactory rating in the annual pass-fail review.

Match that against the 40 percent of students who do not graduate on time and the others who do get diplomas but need remediation, and the only honest conclusion is that thousands of teachers should not be allowed near a classroom.

Wait, it gets more infuriating. Because of union protections, those few teachers who do fail reviews usually face no penalties. Many of the worst still manage to find jobs teaching and inflict their poison on another class of children. A former chancellor dubbed their survival “the dance of the lemons.”

Some are paid not to work in a program similar to the automakers’ jobs bank. It’s called the “rubber room,” and New York pays at least seven hundred teachers a year not to teach, at a cost of about $200 million.

They sit in unused classrooms and offices, reading newspapers, sleeping, or watching TV, waiting for adjudication of various issues or for a classroom vacancy. They might as well be waiting for Godot.

The overarching truth is that one of the great achievements of the American Experiment, the democratization of learning, is being sabotaged by a regressive monopoly that is little more than an adult jobs program.

Bureaucrats and unions, aided and abetted by feckless politicians, conspire to resist any form of competition, including merit pay for teachers and principals and union-free charter schools.

Virtually anywhere they have been allowed, charter schools yield better results with students from the same demographic who fail to learn in nearby unionized schools. Ditto for most inner-city parochial schools, especially those run by the Catholic Church, which send 98 percent of their students to college.

Someday, the public at large will figure out it is being hoodwinked and overthrow the educational monopoly strangling public schools. When that day comes, all of America’s children will have a true chance to succeed.

Let it not be said that the anti-failure mob has overlooked any opportunities to work its mischief. One growing focus is youth sports, where bureaucratized compassion has found an enemy in the very idea of competition.

It may seem to the uninitiated that competition is the point of sports, but apparently that is not so. The new idea taking hold in our culture of noncompetitive sport is that kids can play games without winning or losing.

That way, nobody believes they are better or worse than anybody else.

The website for a Wisconsin T-ball league makes it clear that the goal is to “develop individual player skills in a noncompetitive environment” and emphasizes “There is no score keeping of any kind.”

The manifesto goes on to list thirteen “Performance Goals” (“Players will demonstrate knowledge of Tee Ball rules”), eight safety rules (“No Sliding”), and twenty other rules, including three for coaches. There are sixteen more rules under “Play of the Game,” starting with the command to “Make the game fun.” Five more specifications about the size and shape of the field, and it’s “Play Ball”—sort of.

Anyone tempted to credit the adults behind such fiddle-faddle with a simple excess of compassion should resist. Ending the freedom to fail is a mean-spirited attack on the freedom to succeed. Without failure, how can we know success?

Certainly the dictionary doesn’t know. The definition for “failure” is generally described as the opposite of success. Thus, failure is something or someone “unsuccessful.” It is a “lack of success” and “nonperformance.” To “fail” is to “fall short of success.”

The point is more than mere wordplay. Failure and success are as inseparable as two sides of the same coin.

Just as we don’t know pleasure without pain, fullness without hunger, or black without white, we can’t define success without its opposite. It’s true; you can’t have one without the other. Someone who is not free to fail is not truly free to succeed.

Adults who must compete in the real world, where there are rewards for success and penalties for failure, understand this integral relationship. Carrots and sticks are the commonsense way of managing virtually any enterprise and moving it toward a goal. Those who reach their goals are winners, and our society heartily celebrates them.

But we can’t measure success unless we are also willing to measure failure truly and accurately.

Failure is prevalent in every human endeavor, and to pretend otherwise—through social promotion or endless bailouts or a stubborn refusal to keep score—is to create a false Utopia that will eventually destroy any organization in its thrall.

That’s why a staple of management gurus is the idea that those who cannot produce must be fired, both as a deterrent to others and as a spur to the entire organization.

The head of a major cable television network scoffs at the notion that failure should be avoided. This successful executive, who asks that she and her company remain anonymous, has found an unusual way to inspire her creative talent to keep taking chances: she gives an annual “Failure Award.”

By rewarding the best idea that nonetheless flopped, she aims to reinforce the message that playing it safe is a dead end in the fast-changing, competitive business of TV programming.

With consumers having hundreds of choices at the click of a remote, she believes her company can stay successful only if it takes risks in the conceptual, developmental, and operational stages. The ideas that wash out are more than offset by the hits the process yields.

Perhaps no business superstar has thought more deeply about the relationship between success and failure than Lew Frankfort, the chairman and CEO of Coach, the leather goods maker. Now in his thirtieth year at the company, Frankfort left a management job in government because he found the rules and low expectations stifling. “It wasn’t a meritocracy,” he said.

Rising through the ranks at Coach, then a sleepy unit (oddly enough) of Sara Lee, Frankfort took the brand public in 2000. Its growth since then has been a phenomenon, with sales of about $3 billion a year through hundreds of stores in the United States and twenty other countries.

It is the leader in the “affordable luxury” category of handbags and other goods, with a global market share double its closest rival.

Success certainly has its rewards. Frankfort, whose father was a New York City detective, has made as much as $86 million in a single year, through salary, bonuses, and stock options. He lives very well, enjoys expensive toys, and gives generously to educational and other causes.

Yet he can’t shake an abiding fear of failure, or the sense that it plays a major role in his success. “I’ve always been motivated by a drive for excellence and a simultaneous fear of failure. It’s a very wicked combination because no matter what I do, what level of achievement I have, I won’t be satisfied, and I will always be afraid I’m going to fail on the next level,” he tells me.

Frankfort relays this conflict in matter-of-fact tones as we sit in his airy office atop Coach’s headquarters in Manhattan. It is a beautiful, warm spring day, but he is talking about vivid fears that come in the night, in what he calls “failure dreams.”

One of these takes place in the suburban New Jersey home where he and his wife Bobbi raised their three children. Out one window is a serene pastoral view; out the other and down a hill, it’s the gritty Bronx neighborhood where Frankfort grew up. Sometimes he wakes in a panic, frightened his home is sliding down the hill, back into the Bronx, signaling, he believes, a fear he’ll lose all he has gained.

Frankfort believes the fear of failure is common among successful people, even if many of them do not acknowledge or understand the dynamic playing out in their own heads.

He sees the fear of failure as far more prevalent in America than in Europe and thinks it has its roots in our mobile society and the sense that anything is possible in America.

The last point is especially relevant given the growing chorus that wants our nation to adopt many of the rigid government controls and extensive labor protections common in Europe.

The entrepreneurial, market-driven nature of our capitalist system, which has made America the world’s lone economic superpower and a magnet for strivers from around the globe, is under fierce attack as fundamentally flawed, with the painful recession cited as the latest proof.

While additional regulations are inevitable on new and exotic trading instruments, wholesale calls to smooth out capitalism’s uneven results run against the grain of the failure-success correlation Frankfort describes in himself and other high-achieving Americans.

Similarly, the urge by many bureaucrats and leftist organizations to slap excessive curbs on risk and executive compensation is another manifestation of the movement to reduce the freedom to fail by limiting the freedom to succeed. As usual, it’s a doomed trade-off.

Frankfort incorporates the fear of failure into his management rules at Coach. The company expects rapid innovation and production—it introduces new products every month—and needs talented people who can function under intense pressure.

Those who meet the demands are rewarded with annual bonuses, and top achievers are publicly recognized and given shares of company stock.

There are losers, too, in what Frankfort calls Coach’s “performance family.” He states, “What we have come to believe is that the people who are the long-term best performers take calculated risks. Those who are more security minded will tend not to get ahead as much and will be the less innovative people.”

In other words, those whose fear of failure inhibits them usually cannot meet the performance standards Coach requires. They are among the 6 or 7 percent of new hires the company terminates within the first twenty-four months, a level Frankfort finds acceptable and comparable to the bottom 5 percent Jack Welch famously weeded out at GE.

Frankfort holds himself to those standards, telling me in 2009, “I am not getting a bonus this year, and no one in my group is getting one. Not because we lost money or didn’t do well, but because we did less well than last year and less well than our plan.”

Perhaps there is a land over the rainbow where everyone always wins and nobody ever loses. Perhaps we will get there one day.

In the meantime, in this world, we are stuck with the verity that success and failure are inseparable. “In order to succeed, you must first be willing to fail,” goes an old saying. So it was, and so it remains, no matter how much we wish and pretend otherwise.

Michael Goodwin is a New York Post columnist and Fox News contributor.

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