Ask the Expert - Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner

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Failure Paves the Road to Success

Failure is part of life, and our failures are part of who we are. But failure is too often kept private, like a hidden shame, and instead we are surrounded by stories of success. Across social media, on blogs, and in interviews we hear again and again how people “made it”, and about all the clever moves that took them there. We should make a case instead for our failures being part of our accomplishment. Because, as the historian Drew Faust said, "A key part of any success is the part of you willing to fail."

Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, is a champion of this kind of thinking. Jack has talked about how he applied for jobs in restaurants, hotels, the police force – and all of them were rejected. He failed exams in school, and exams to enter college[1]. But when he speaks about his failures, Jack emphasises that this was what trained him for success. He has said: “If you want to be successful, learn from other people’s mistakes. Don’t learn from the successful stories… No matter how smart you are, you will encounter these mistakes.” Jack Ma has even said that if he were to write a book, it would be ‘Alibaba – 1,001 Mistakes’.[2]

Some people claim that risking failure is just not in our culture as Europeans. I read so many times how Americans are better suited to start-up companies because it is somehow in their social DNA. I could not disagree more. Europe, and especially Portugal, has the strongest traditions stretching back centuries of exploring the unknown. Of striving to create what had never been seen before in the history of man.

Every day I see great ideas coming from European innovators. Innovators like Dr. Susana Sargento, co-founder of a company in Portugal that turns vehicles into Wi-Fi hotspots, and builds city-scale vehicular networks that collect terabytes of urban data. Europe is bubbling over with ideas like Susana’s, and with people who are willing to make a leap of faith.

However, Europe’s innovation ecosystem is too risk-averse. Policy-makers need to allow people to fail and pick themselves up again. When I was in government in Portugal I helped to change the bankruptcy system to reduce how long the period lasts. This means that people can move on from a terrible failure, rather than being punished for many years. Now, as European Commissioner, I am working on many ways to support risk-takers. For instance, I have set up loan facilities for small and medium companies in high-risk sectors. This allows these companies to take a risk where banks can be too frightened to invest. It is not our society that is afraid of failure, but our institutions, and this what we must work to change.

Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner



[2] (26-28 minutes)