In his most recent letter to shareholders, Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon.com founder and owner of The Washington Post, wrote that, along with many successes, “we’ve also had billions of dollars’ worth of failures along the way.” Tesla founder Elon Musk has written that “failure is an option” at SpaceX, his out-there company that is aiming to send humans to Mars. And Musk goes further: “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” Zuckerberg likewise told a Facebook community that “if you’re successful, most of the things you’ve done were wrong.”
Although such comments may be characteristic of the successful entrepreneur’s penchant for self-mythologizing, persistence in the face of failure is embedded in the very idea of America. Americans believe that, with persistence, the application of hard work and an unquenchable belief in ourselves, a solution can be found to every problem. This belief has held for over four centuries, despite the fact that, for many people, failure is final: There is no second chapter, no second chance.
What is striking is that, in America, there is no shame in failure. Of course, no one wants to fail. But while in some countries failure is a source of humiliation, in America, it is regarded, if not quite as a badge of honor then, certainly, as a learning experience.
Why is it that the idea continues to resonate? Because the country was founded on it. Even before the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod, a group of brilliant English merchants and their associates mounted a series of voyages and expeditions that led, eventually, to the settling of America in the early 17th century.
Famous in their day, these people — a constellation of venture capitalists, politicians, aristocrat-investors, scientists, chroniclers and buccaneer-sailors — are rarely remembered for their part in America’s founding story. They began their quest in 1551, when a drastic economic crisis left London’s leading merchants facing financial ruin and forced them to look beyond Europe for new markets. Obliged to take action, the merchants mounted a daring expedition to China, then the world’s largest economy, to sell their main product — woolen cloth — and purchase silks, spices, intricately woven carpets, exotic foodstuffs and the like for the English gentry.
At first, the merchants went east, hoping to find a quick route over the top of the Eurasian landmass. That didn’t work, so they switched directions and headed west through the icy Arctic waters of the fabled Northwest Passage. Again, they failed to reach their goal. But instead of China, they found America’s Eastern Seaboard and began an era of exploration that resulted in a 50-year run of failed ventures and lost lives.
But a few — some of them particularly skilled, some of them just lucky — survived to live another day, to enjoy some success and to pass on their lessons to others. From the first voyages in the 1550s, there was a conscious effort to record what worked and what didn’t, so that successive generations could learn how to do things differently and better. In this way, they began to stitch multiple threads of failure into a fabric of success.
The classic story of how the early adventurers overcame a long string of setbacks is Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America. In April 1607, just over 100 settlers, many of them indentured servants, landed in what is now Virginia, establishing a rudimentary fort on a swampy island off the north bank of a river they named the James, after the king of England. Over the next 2½ years, many died from disease, hunger and battles with local Indians. The merchants, eager to keep the settlement going, sent over several ships carrying more settlers and supplies.
And then a string of disasters struck.
In July 1609, the Sea Venture, the flagship in a fleet of nine vessels, was caught in a vicious hurricane. Remarkably, although the ship struck reefs off the little-known islands of Bermuda, everyone survived and made it to shore. The merchants back in England learned from the others in the fleet that the flagship had been lost, but they urged their investors not to lose faith in the Jamestown initiative. “Is he fit to take any action whose courage is shaken and dissolved with one storm?”
They sent out more ships the following spring, only to discover that the population of Jamestown had been reduced to some 60 settlers who were hanging on after a brutal winter, violent confrontations with the Powhatan Indians and a lack of supplies. Desperate with hunger, the Jamestown settlers had resorted to eating anything they could catch: cats, dogs, horses, mice, rats, snakes and, finally, their fellow settlers, in what became known as the Starving Time.
For those who survived, the experience was transformative. As a community, they had come through the toughest of times, and it instilled in them a new belief that they could overcome the most difficult challenges that life in America could throw at them.
The merchants learned from the experience, as well, and rethought the way they were running Jamestown. They realized that the settlers had to have some measure of autonomy and an opportunity to personally benefit from their efforts, beyond the earning of wages. Four years after the events of the Starving Time, the survivors who had arrived as indentured servants were released from their obligations and rewarded with plots of land on which they could enjoy the fruits of their own labor. And five years after that, some of them were sitting at the first meeting of America’s first representative assembly — Jamestown’s House of Burgesses.
These Jamestown settlers were arguably the first people to create the idea of the American Dream that has since animated our country’s mythology. In England, they had faced the grim prospect of living their entire lives in the grinding poverty endured by their forefathers. In America, with its promise of reinvention, they could be reborn. They might start with nothing, but through dint of hard work, determination and an entrepreneurial willingness to take risk, they could make their own luck, becoming tenant farmers with a voice in local government — something unimaginable when they lived in England.
Zuckerberg, Musk, Bezos — they are the entrepreneurial descendants of these early venture capitalist-merchants. They accept and acknowledge their setbacks, even claiming them as essential to the creation of their success.
But for all their wealth, they are not unique. They are merely standout exponents of an idea that has become deeply entrenched in American life. Across the country, people in all walks of life understand that failure isn’t a bad thing — it’s something to learn from and to bounce back from. “I’ve been up and down and over and out/And I know one thing” crooned Frank Sinatra in “That’s Life”: “Each time I find myself flat on my face/I pick myself up and get back in the race.” In a way, America stands as a testament to humankind’s ability to overcome failure.
The question now is: What have Zuckerberg, Musk and Bezos learned from their setbacks, and what will they do with that learning?