Behind a pretence of being carefree, we are destructively afraid of failure

Opinion: It is the entrepreneur’s rejection of security that provides security to so many others


A mark of our response to the economic collapse has been our dogged unwillingness to accept and embrace legitimate failure.

Elsewhere failure is understood. In the most vibrant places it is even applauded since it implies effort. And effort is the oil that lubricates society and moves humanity on.

This goes well beyond the making of goods or the provision of services. Every sportsperson must learn to deal with failure and to see how it can be the catalyst for future greatness. This is true for all aspects of human endeavour, both public and private. In order to grow and to prosper we must understand and then embrace failure.

In Ireland our fear of failure runs deep. Behind the pretence of being carefree, we dread what the neighbours might think and seek to preserve bubble reputations by keeping our heads down. Because of this, and perhaps because of little else, hundreds of thousands of our bravest and best have left so they might have that most basic of human rights – the right to breathe. And living among people who forgive, Irish men and women have built empires.

Those who stayed home sought security in land ownership, in the professions and the church. This created a profoundly conservative society with consequent rock-like stability. But life does not thrive in rocks.

Keynes saw the animal spirit as integral to economic growth. He understood the driver of the economy as that part of the human spirit that seeks out adventure. If we all look for a job or crave security there would be no economy because the economy depends on those who create wealth and employment, and those who value adventure over security. It is the entrepreneur’s rejection of security that gives security to so many others.

But adventure must mean the possibility of failure. So, in a country that more than anything else needs adventurers and visionaries we would do ourselves a great service by appreciating failure, by valuing the risk-taker and extolling the visionary.

This is the great challenge facing Ireland in 2014 and for the coming years.

It is time to ask the hard question. Can we accept that those who have failed are entitled to a fresh start where the past is wiped clean, or do we quietly rejoice when they leave our shores to being again elsewhere? Can we so change our attitude to failure that we would say to those who seek adventure that this is a country for them, where they will be valued and where, if they fail, we will fix them, praise them and set them on their way again.

Remember that until very recently we have had the most draconian insolvency laws in the world. Nowhere else did a financial failure mean exclusion for life. And when the change came it was because the troika insisted on it. Interesting that – it was a foreign influence that has forced the laws to recognise and accept failure.

We now have a 21st century insolvency system at the heart of which is a bankruptcy regime that means a citizen can be debt-free in weeks. We expect tens of thousands of people to avail of it.

No choice
Who are these people? In the main they are small businesspeople whose dreams were shattered in 2008. Rather than jump ship immediately they kept on going, hoping against hope that the storm would abate. And in a way they had no choice. Were they to face the ignorant cruelty of the law and the prurient interest engendered in that process by the system itself? Nowhere else in the world do debt collection courts receive such publicity.

Politicians, judges, officials and all the various actors on the other side of our national failure make contributions that are trivial in comparison with the contribution of entrepreneurs, who risk everything. The professional classes, though necessary, are by nature parasitic, for they live off wealth created by others. They have no right to look down haughty noses at those who have tried and failed.

Dread of failure is the hallmark of the status quo. It keeps the masses in their place and ensures a dead society. That society can be dressed up by glassy buildings in a part of Dublin populated by US corporations who grew from tiny garages in a land where visionaries are cherished. But a society where the status quo is maintained is dead. It is one where professional people and bureaucrats rule by themselves – and for themselves.

We can talk about political reform and recovery but it will all be nothing unless it means that a child born in the poorest part of the poorest city in this country can rise to greatness in his own way and in his own land. Let there be no doubt, vibrant societies value courage over position.

Wherever humanity has flourished it has been because people have the freedom to express themselves. The freedom is not a freedom from chains but a freedom from stultifying value systems that rate security over vision or deem legitimate failure as morally less than perfect.

Our society needs to value its visionaries, wherever they come from. They must be celebrated and their stories told. A country of visionaries and adventurers won’t be quiet nor obedient. It will be noisy and unruly – but out of that noise will come a very different type of community.

A poet once wrote that this is no country for old men. Our problem now is rather that it is no country for the young.

This is our modern challenge – to make Ireland vibrant. And that means embracing and celebrating failure and it means cherishing those who have failed and who will fail again. They are the future – they are the champions.

Ross Maguire is a co-founder of New Beginning,

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