If at first you don’t succeed…you’re probably not German

Last year, I read an article about failure workshops in a German business magazine. If you are American, you’ll probably start yawning or laughing right now. Failure workshops, so what? No big deal, we have them all the time. Well, in Germany, it is a big deal. Cultures have different approached towards failure. Let’s compare Americans and Germans here. In the US, failure is part of life. You can’t change anything if you are afraid of failure and if you do fail – so what, you’ll just start over again. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. It goes very well with the high tolerance for uncertainty and the inherent American optimism. Things will work out eventually is the American point of view. Failure is considered essential for progress, because failure helps you to learn from your mistakes, to see what can be improved. Thomas Edison phrased it very positively (and American): “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Americans admire people who dare something. Germans admire people who dare something as long as they plan it thoroughly, have some contingency plans and eliminate any potential for failure. When I quit my job to follow my dream and work as an independent trainer, the typical German reaction was “Oh, how brave, I would never have done it. Think of all the security you are giving up!” That was usually followed by a list of things that could happen: what if you become ill and can’t work, what if you don’t find clients, what if the health insurance premiums become too high, what if, what if, what if? American friends usually said: “Wow, great idea, it will turn out fabulously!”

The truth, like always, is somewhere in the middle, of course, but the reactions were so typical of the respective culture. Americans tend to assume it will all work out well, and if not…well, then a solution will be found. Germans tend to assume it will not work out and so it might be better to plan a solution in advance. Germans admire those who don’t fail, Americans admire those who failed and picked themselves up again. I personally think that Americans admire those people more than those who never failed, because for them failure means these people dared something and also because failure is not as such a bad thing – it’s what you make of it.

You can see this in the business world – the daring unforeseen business ideas tend to come from the US rather than Germany. Germany stands for reliable products, for companies with a long history and it’s also how many German products are advertised. If you speak enough German, watch some German TV spots. You will quickly see that a lot of advertisements point out things like “We have been making this product for umpteenth years” or “My grandmother used this washing detergent back in the olden days and our family has been using this brand ever since”. It makes Germans lean back in their chair, heave a sigh of relief and avoid the uncertainty of having to deal with unknown products. American advertisements spill over with shouted “new and improved”, “new and better”, “newnewnewnew!!!!111!!”. It makes American sit up, clap their hands and get excited to try out something unknown, which surely will be good. And if it’s not good, so what – at least you tried it.

Wir müssen mehr wagen” – “We have to dare something” often comes up when the situation is Germany is dicussed. For as long as I remember it has been discussed that our fear of uncertainty, of risk, of failure is harming the German business world. Is our employment law too inflexible, thereby discouraging companies to hire more people? Is the secure life of an employee too valuable to trade it for the uncertainy of working for oneself? For many decades if you had a job in Germany, you usually could have it for life. You got your 28 – 30 days of paid vacation, your six weeks sick leave, your extra month’s salary for Christmas and sometimes for summer, and after a full work life, you got your pension. It was all very foreseeable (for the American readers now cringing in their seats: in Germany foreseeable is good) and secure. Then, the world changed and even in Germany, the heaven of stability, uncertainty crept in (for the German readers now cringing in their seats: it won’t go away, sorry). Suddenly jobs were not that secure anymore, the extra month’s salary was dropped and I won’t even start talking about the pension. People were laid off or found themselves in more short-term employment arrangements.

But…you might be surprised to hear this: Germans can adapt! So German culture started to – slowly! – change and allow more uncertainty, because it was necessary. The number of self-employed people has been steadily rising since the beginning of the 2000s (though the total percentage is still way below the US and many other countries) and among them are quite some people who voluntarily leave secure (and often well-paying) jobs to fulfill their dream. They are often young people who recognize trends like natural cosmetics, healthy food, vegan options, environmentally friendly schemes, handcrafted quality items. Many of them become successfull and are quickly household names, others are gradually building up their business with a small group of dedicated customers. Others fail.

For a long time, if you failed in Germany, you didn’t talk about it. People would be quick to tell you what you did wrong, what they would have done better and that you were reckless to try anyway. And if after the initial failure you started again, you’d get comments like “But you already failed, just leave it be!” or “You want to start again? Why set yourself up for another failure?” Yes, we’re big on pessimism. Do I need to refer to our history again to explain why? Actually, just a few sentences: while our history has often given us Germans reason for a pessimistic outlook, it also showed us that we are not that bad in picking ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start again – usually quite successfully. So we could allow a bit of optimism into our culture and many of our new young German entrepreneurs are doing just that right now.

Which gets me back to the beginning of these article: Germany’s approach towards failure is starting to change. The failure workshops are fairly new and are rapidly gaining followers. People get up on the stage and share how they failed and what they learned from it. Articles mainly – but not exclusively – aimed at people wanting to start their own business point out that failure is nothing to be feared, that it can be seen as a positive thing, that it is not the end of the road. That said, failure is not yet as accepted as in the US. Many Germans are still wary to enter into a business relationship with or become a customer of someone they know failed before. The uncertainty, you know… Still, the younger generation is showing a marked change of thinking. They dare more, they realize that full stability is a thing of the past, they accept failure and are not scared to talk about it. And often, they are very successful with their approach (maybe on the second of third try) and enrich our business world with original and fun concepts and products.


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