I am not perfect. I hate to fail. For most of my life my fear of failure was so strong, I would not even consider opportunities unless I was confident that I could achieve them.
So my time in college was largely defined by taking the safer route, especially avoiding anything that would put me in direct competition with my famous entrepreneurial father. I made choices that I thought were common sense but in retrospect were driven by risk aversion. These choices included not pursuing any student activities related to investing, not running for any leadership role (unless someone else nominated me), and choosing to major in history and literature instead of economics.
For example, I applied for a postgraduate fellowship for photojournalism instead of writing because I thought it made my application stronger, even though news photography had become less interesting to me.
They cut me in the final round. I was surprised, having chosen the safer route and expecting it to pay off for me. To think, if I had followed my instincts, my dream and my heart, I might have been able to pursue the writing opportunity I originally wanted, because that’s where my true talent was.
My risk aversion even led me to give up on things I was good at. My junior year, I gave up my bimonthly opinion column in the school newspaper. For a year and a half, I had exhausted myself making every essay an original idea. I thought that was what I needed to do to be excellent.
The pressure burned me out. Also, my good friend wanted the slot. Never mind that the dean of the college had invited me to a regular lunch as a result of my column (my topics were campus life and issues of racial justice). Never mind that I had won the column fair and square through a campuswide contest.
“You gave up a column?!” said a prospective mentor, a noted female opinion writer, years later. “That’s crazy.”
Voluntarily giving up a column was so unusual, the dean assumed that I had graduated.
I am here to tell you about a radical concept that changed my life for the better, and may help you with yours: celebrating failure. My organization, All Star Code, developed it as a foundational part of its curriculum and uses it to empower young men of color to be successful in tech. However, the practice of celebrating failure works for everyone.
Why Fear of Failure Runs Deep
For black and brown people, the world trains them to think that they should seem perfect. There is so much evidence of the ways that black students aren’t allowed to fail. According to the 2017 Brown Center Report on Education, in 2015 the statewide African-American suspension rate in California was 17.8 percent, much higher than for other groups. For Latinos, the suspension rate was 5.2 percent; for whites, 4.4 percent; and for Asians, 1.2 percent. Minor infractions and mistakes get big punishments.
Parents of black and brown boys often create a “no mistakes” culture. I am thinking of “the talk,” the script of tightly controlled moves for how to behave around a police officer. It’s tragic, because the freedom to express your emotions should be a basic human right. And while I don’t endorse arguing with police officers, the truth is, that’s the natural thing to do if you’ve been wrongfully arrested; and quite frankly, white people do it all the time.
The pressure not to fail—not just on the streets (or in a park); heck, to never make a mistake or relax—also exists in school. Too often in our educational systems, the consequences of innocent mischief for our boys and girls can be too harsh.
When you engage with a field such as tech, this can be problematic. The goal is to innovate—that is, to have wild ideas and the willingness to try them. But the thing with trying to do something that has never been done before is that you are bound to make mistakes.
Mistakes are behaviors whose impact is the opposite of what you intended. In other words, things you did wrong (eek, gasp!). In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries describes the build-measure-learn feedback loop in innovation. First you build something, then you try it out, measure (aka, what is working and what isn’t) and then learn from your mistakes (as well as your successes). Based on those assessments, you start building all over again.
Celebrating Failure: How It Works
In 2014, I was in a circle with my team yelling as loud as we dared, “I have failed!” and then cheering and clapping wildly. It was at the behest of a 23-year-old computer-engineering graduate who had run the country’s largest collegiate hackathon. His name was Jon and I had hired him to develop a curriculum that would expose our students foremost to how to think like an engineer. I picked him because he is one of the most freethinking, interesting people I have ever met.
My general directive was that I wanted the program to “open the world” to our students, who are primarily black and Latino and in high school. Jon told me that the key was to teach them to celebrate failure—hence the exercise, “I have failed.”
I remember doing it, and it felt like a huge release. I loved it. We loved it. And now it is a huge part of the success of my organization, All Star Code.
I founded All Star Code in 2013. We teach computer science to young men of color with the goal of developing a new generation of entrepreneurs who have the tools to be successful in tech. “Celebrating failure” is one of the three pillars of our organization (pdf), and a tool we teach our students. We have even implemented a “fail wall,” where we share our failures and clap for one another in the classroom when a failure is shared. This practice is designed to lower inhibitions and helps counteract this fear of failure, allowing them to experiment and do more. Through this practice, we combat the desire to be perfect.
The Freedom to Fail
When we say “We celebrate failure here,” it turbocharges the learning because students start to come forward with their mistakes. At the beginning of the summer, these 16-year-olds walk into the classroom tense and uncertain (the classrooms are inside some of the top companies and colleges in America). Often, they have their baseball hats on. They are reluctant to take off their backpacks, even wearing them while sitting down.
During the exercise, it’s important for someone to take the lead in embracing looking ridiculous. Big gestures and yelling loudly are very important: “I HAVE FAILED!” We stand on chairs. We might jump and pump our fists. Going around the circle, you see people calibrate how loud they feel they can allow themselves to be. But after this moment, the whole culture of the classroom transforms.
The “I have failed” exercise transforms their demeanor. Their posture shifts; they start looking each other in the eye. They smile more. They relax. The backpacks and hats come off. They feel freed.
The culture of tech does not trust anyone who is not comfortable with making mistakes. In planning All Star Code, I interviewed roughly 150 people, including people of color who were executives in tech or tech-enabled companies, and also people of color who were frustrated at their inability to break in.
And yet based on my five years of developing a pipeline from high school into college and industry internships for young men of color, I think that one of the biggest obstacles to success for many African Americans and within other communities of color is the fear of failure that has been programmed into us by society. This has led to a reluctance within these communities to admit when you have made a mistake. But this covering up of problems is incompatible with tech’s “fail harder, fail fast” culture and with the mentality that its job is to solve problems. You can’t solve problems if you don’t talk about them.
The reason celebrating failure is such a powerful practice for lifelong learning is that it breaks the cycle. It provides the space for one to start talking about, reflecting on and learning from one’s experience. What prevents people from actually learning from failure is the fear of failure itself.
For Each Failed Try, Clap for Yourself
With all due respect to Yoda, I think you have to try in order to do.
The next time you catch yourself obsessing over something that went wrong or worrying about something that could go wrong, try approaching it differently. Take a deep breath, mentally cheer for yourself and celebrate the fact that you are doing something difficult.
After you have felt your stress levels go down, smile, go and talk to someone, and share what you’re struggling with. Believe it or not, that’s the beginning of receiving the help you need.
The key is bringing yourself to a point where you risk failure. When you do that, you start truly daring greatly.
Celebrating Failure: How It’s Working
As proof, it’s already working for our young men at All Star Code. Our students are 80 percent black or Latino, and 70 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Yet virtually all of them matriculated to college, with 30 percent at top 100 national universities, and 85 percent majoring or minoring in computer science.
They are doing what so many others fail to do: getting hired (as software engineering interns) at Google, Facebook, JPMorgan Chase, NASA, Goldman Sachs and other top employers. They are not letting failure stop them, and they are not letting the fear of failure prevent them from trying.
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