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This week I was invited to an event during which student projects were presented and awarded prizes. Great ideas, innovative approaches to important problems of our time and enthusiastic students who were passionate about their projects and were really able to show this authentically. Unfortunately, as with every competition, only a few received awards. As is always the case when it comes to winning or losing. But did the other projects really lose or did they even fail? It may have felt that way from the point of view of individual participants. As in, one goal was not achieved: to win. Of course, everyone is hoping to be awarded one of the coveted prizes. Just as every start-up or start-up team hopes to build a successful business with a scalable business model, every business heir dreams of passing the old family business on to the next generation, and every project manager is committed to making their innovation project a resounding success.


Not everyone will achieve success. We must remain realistic. Some of the presented projects will be realized, others won’t be. There may be various reasons for this: technical, commercial, strategic. Most start-ups cease to exist after 3 years, many family businesses do not survive the second generation, and most product innovations are withdrawn from the market within a year because they are not successful on the market. To use the language of success – they have failed. For me, success means accomplishing meaningful goals that you have set yourself; and failure describes the ultimate failure of not being able to achieve that goal. We live in success-oriented societies and cultures in Europe. It is important for most of us to be able to prove that we are capable of something, that we are able to achieve our goals and thereby make a contribution to our companies. Many people base their identity on this. I am successful therefore I am.

I consider this to be troublesome and it misses the real issue. We are not all successful. And certainly not all the time and at anytime. I give many lectures on the subject of entrepreneurial failure and entrepreneurs who are experienced often come up to me afterwards and thank me for openly expressing an ignored, taboo and stigmatized fact. I am able to do this because 8 years ago, I myself had to file for insolvency for my group of companies. I know what it feels like to have to give up part of one’s identity, not to be successful, to have failed.


What if all we ever did was succeed? We would always do everything right, i.e. everything we did would lead to the results we were expecting. Whoever travels on the same track always arrives at the same destination. Failure destroys these expectations. The track is interrupted, we cannot continue on the planned path, we have to take a fresh look and reorient ourselves. As painful as the experience may feel, we could regard failure as a turning point. As an experience that challenges us to pause, reflect, to reorient ourselves and, if necessary, to tread new paths. Maybe we were ahead of our time and not yet fully ready for our idea, maybe it was unexpected and unpredictable events that caused us to fail, maybe we were not the right person because our hearts beat for something completely different. Perhaps we overestimated ourselves and our resources, time, capabilities, energy or assets and should have accepted help and support. There are many reasons why entrepreneurs, founders, project managers – people – fail. And there are many reasons why they are successful.

Sides of the same coin

For me, success and failure are two sides of the same coin. There is no success without failure and no failure without success. There are not any successful people who have not failed at some point in their lives. And there is no such thing as an unsuccessful person who has never had any successful periods. So the question is why can’t we stand firm and talk openly not only about our successes, but especially about our failures. By pretending that we are always always successful, we ignore an important component of our success – that it is ‘merely’ the result of a lifelong learning process. And learning is best done by making mistakes and failing. From this point of view, every mistake, every failure is the chance for a new learning opportunity as a prerequisite for future success. How much faster would we all be able to learn if we first stood by our own mistakes, and secondly, shared those experiences with others? If innovation was not just be reflected in new products, but in our thoughts, actions and learning. And then each of the ideas I have seen this week is a gift, because not only was I allowed to learn about new ideas and old problems, all the participants present were given the opportunity to learn something useful for their lives.

Bert Overlack is the author of the book: FuckUp: Das Scheitern von heute sind die Erfolge von morgen ( Fuck Up: The failure of today is the success of tomorrow).

About this coloumn:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous columns.