Failure sucks, but try it anyway

By Amy C. Cosper

Lessons on the Law of Janta, failure and the art of creating without fear

In Nordic countries, there is a thing called the Law of Jante. It’s a loose law that is, by all accounts, unenforceable. It’s more of an unspoken, understood law that discourages overambition, rule breaking and general rabble rousing. Under the terms of this unenforceable law, everyone is equal; no one is better than anyone else. I had a Danish friend explain it this way, “If one nail rises from a board, it must be hammered down so that it is performing its duty to the other nails.”*  Failure is strongly discouraged, as one might imagine.

Since we are a country built on competition and scrapping and trying unimagined things (and, frankly, many family businesses are built on making a certain amount of noise about new ideas), it’s hard to wrap our arms around The Law of Jante. Or, at least, it is for me. And that’s OK – and probably good.

Can you imagine how challenging it would be to innovate or create a meaningful and lasting legacy of excellence if you don’t break the Law of Jante, bend some rules and fall on your face every generation or two? Failure is going to be a part of any enterprise that spans generations. It just is. It’s entrepreneurial. It’s how we learn. It’s how we create. And it’s how we innovate and remain relevant. And it also makes for entertaining yarn spinning over the decades.

Failure is as much a part of our stories as our shiny successes. We are lucky to live in a culture that allows for and encourages failure. There’s even a conference for it (Failcon in Silicon Valley).

I’m not saying, “Make failure your core value statement.” That would be really stupid advice. I’m saying, “Make new ways of thinking a part of your values, and allow a reasonable amount of goofing up.” You never know where those goof-ups will take you.

* Full disclosure: My friend in Denmark assures me that the Law of Jante is no longer a thing and we should stop worrying about it.

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