Failure and Happiness

MBS Success Failure
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Failure belongs to life, just as much as night belongs to day. We all know that. But still we are doing our utmost – more or less – to avoid failure. If this is not possible, we sugarcoat our failures by pretty words or switch to outright denial. We refuse to talk about it; we avoid the subject as if this would make our fiasco disappear. If we cannot stand the pressure produced by such perceived ban on failure, we freeze and stop all activity. Those who are inactive cannot fail either. We stop experimenting, we stop everything.

Failure is the disappointment of expectations, a goal that we aimed at and missed, a plan that didn’t work out. What makes failure painful is the lack of control: Things don’t go the way we want. It produces the feeling of powerlessness in a world that adores activity and control more than anything.

Culture of Failure

It is said, that elsewhere there is pointblank culture of failure. There, a failing entrepreneur is not embarrassed, contemplates the end of the project as one of many steps in his or her career, and starts afresh with a new idea, or a new business plan.

Max Levchin, the inventor of PayPal, is often quoted in this context. He failed with three companies, the fourth survived, and finally with his fifth, Paypal, he became rich and famous. If you fail, you’ve gained the experience that will help you to avoid another failure. At least, this is the hope of all who attend these events that recently have become quite popular and topicalize failure: Fuckup Nights is the label of this new movement, which emerged a few years ago in Mexico.

Own experience however, is highly important for the personal development: Failure is a regulative factor. We fail because something does not work out in the way we had planned. And because failure is solely defined by how we evaluate success, it is worth-while to assess our evaluation criteria[1]: Did we plan correctly? Did we consider all the facts? Did we develop any real notion about what success actually is? Does this planned success suit us at all? Do we fulfill all the requirements, do we have sufficient motivation, the capacity and the will to complete this project? It could be sobering in a double sense if we realize that something has failed because it does not even suit us, and because success would not be as glorious as imagined.

Social Service Project: Reflection on Failure and Success

The Social Service Project, planned and implemented by the students of the BACHELOR International Business program in their second and third semesters, is an excellently occasion for reflecting failure and success and the part the students themselves have in it. This reflection, the thinking process, is the actual accomplishment of the social service projects, which were presented this week. Therefore, they were all a success!

What criteria should apply to success? It is implementing a project across two semesters in a group of fellow-students largely freely chosen and the project itself freely defined, a freely selectable project partner through all the adversities (full curriculum and numerous exams plus the internship in summer, “loss” of group members, cancellations of project partners and sponsors etc.). And additionally, the presentation of the project in a written project report and the presentation of the same in front of a jury. It takes a whole set of skills to meet these requirements. Which means: Carrying out the project from the planning phase into completion alone must be evaluated as a success.

Measurable are, of course, the proceeds of donations, their sum, and a full-scale successful event. But it is no less a success if, at the beginning of the third semester, i.e. six weeks before the final presentation, a group shrunk to four members manages to realize Plan C, an emergency plan. It is no less a success if the two people who left the group were the ones in charge of Plan A (creative input) and Plan B (contact to the project partners). And it is no less a success if, when there are no “results” at the time of the presentation of the project, an event is expected in November that is going to be implemented together with a local project partner, the multicultural youth center Westend.

What should be considered as results and thus success, however, are persistence and thoughtful analysis of the meaning and purpose of the activities, team work (or the difficulties thereof) and the many contacts with the project partners.

Another project group planned a game and discussion afternoon in a retirement home: The contact with the residents in the form of a round table discussion as an “event” was just a gorgeous idea, and after all awarded by the residents’ request to the students to return. Improvisation talent was also required, as several rounds of Bingo were to be played before the round table discussion, yet the required equipment was not in place: Random generators (of course, via smartphone) to generate number sequences served as templates for the Bingo tables, which were then drawn by hand. Just wonderful!

Another project involved collecting and sorting of used clothing for refugees at the initial registration facility in Munich. Success, in this case, was the experience itself: Where and how to collect donations in kind, but also the contact with the project partners and the experience gained from first planning to project presentation, including all the related obstacles of communication gained in the whole project.

MBS Success Failure

One group of students planned a charity run in Munich. The excellent and very careful planning in favor of an organization supporting children with cerebral paresis, the numerous ideas regarding the design of the events, the mature thought process regarding distribution of tasks within the group and their amazing commitment: all of this could not prevent failure. It was caused by a simple misunderstanding in the communication with the approving authority. The students fought a good fight, developed a plan B just in time and, after all, held an event, in which they made “only a few” children with cerebral paresis happy. But they were able to gain valuable experience. In particular their conclusions about the reasons for their failure and the thoroughness and seriousness of their planning and realization were impressive.

Another project consisted in the cooperation of a local group to help refugees. The students assisted the preparation of lunch bags and accompanied 40 refugees to an excursion to Neuschwanstein with a picnic at Lake Forggen. The medieval castle (yes, indeed, that’s how it was presented!) was almost irrelevant, and talking with the refugees about their experiences and perceptions left deep impressions. Success – in this context – was the personal experience in contact with the refugees, but also the experience gained from committing to a support group, a small local association.

The last example I want to present here is a project with the title “Togo Seven”: Seven students committed to supporting a small village in Togo. A well, a hospital ward, and a school were planned to be built; the required sum amounted to roughly 75,000 EUR. But the sponsors already had other plans and one after the other abandoned the project and even the joint trip to Togo did not materialize, because the students were engaged in their internships.

Cooperation with an association dedicated to supporting Togo emerged from a personal contact. The project partner also advised our students’ group to ask the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) for support. Shortly before the project presentation, the good news came: The BMZ granted the sum of 60,000 EUR for the project, if the group itself managed to raise the remaining 15,000 EUR. What luck! Failure itself seemed to become beneficial; but even now, success is not yet entirely sure, because these 15,000 EUR need to be gathered first. However, one event is already planned, and the trip to Togo is also back on the agenda. But the commitment, the experience of the cooperation with the partners and the confrontation with the challenges with development work must already be considered an accomplishment – a success.

All these non-measurable results, the experience and impressions cannot be completely planned and they remain very personal. Nonetheless, thinking about them, analyzing them makes them particularly valuable. Maybe they will also lead to a shift of perspective regarding failure, as experience and a step along one’s own path. We congratulate all our students to their social projects!

[1] in John, René; Langhof, Antonia (ed.) (2014). Scheitern – ein Desiderat der Moderne, Wiesbaden: Springer, p. 5

Prof. Dr. Gabriella Maráz
About Prof. Dr. Gabriella Maráz 28 Articles
Gabriella Maráz is Professor for Intercultural Management and Research Methodology and focuses on information and communication psychology and work techniques.