Why Indians fear failure?


“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” — Albert Einstein. We can rephrase it is as “Anyone who has never failed has never tried anything new”. But then why are we afraid of failures?

Why Indians fear failure

Being an Indian, I am not stating this as a fact, rather as an observation with a 28 year old eye. Last seven years in the Indian corporate world, where I was hired for innovation, have forced me to conclude that “Yes, We (Indians) are taught to succeed and not to fail”. Most of the times, failure is seen as a result of inefficient, unfocused and UNWANTED attempts made by an inefficient, unfocused and not so smart individual.

It takes me back to the year 1995, my 10th grade science practical exam. We were asked to make projects based on scientific theories. The most popular choice was to go for a wind mill or a solar heater. Our seniors did it and their seniors too and probably their seniors too, everybody knew about these so called popular yet regular projects. However, my friend Rajkumar decided to break the so called success mantra by doing something new, a water clock. He made a water clock where one drop of water was hitting a second’s hand every second (He did all the calculations and I guess it worked). But he really had a tough time in convincing his teachers of its worth (and his hard work). He was discouraged at every stage and the weapon used to dissuade him was again the after effects of failure. It’s not a story with one Rajkumar but almost every Rajkumar.

Here are my viewpoints on why (most of) the Indians are not very comfortable with failures:

  1. We hardly failed: From our childhood we hardly failed as we were not allowed to fail. We were given a tested formula before every experiment which minimized the chances of failure to almost zero. We were almost always taught the “how to” with “what to”. As we grow the word failure takes a different meaning altogether as we never saw that as a part of our normal day to day life.
  2. Failure makes YOU a failure: It was always inculcated that failure makes you a failure. Things are changing but still the respect for the failure is missing. I really liked Sir Ken Robinson talk on “Do schools kill creativity?“. I wonder if our education system is creating the fear of failure inside.
  3. Less freedom for innovation at higher education level: I had been a student of 2 great universities but we hardly had the freedom to try something new. Creating something new was an option that was left for not so important (out of course) subjects. I personally feel that at PG level or professional courses there should be classes on the necessity of attempts and failures. The more freedom you have for innovation the more you will try and least will you fear failures.
  4. We never enjoyed the luxury offered by failures: Every failure comes with a cost – huge or low. Most of the time we can not enjoy the luxury offered by failure due to the cost and the time involved with every venture. Failure is a lot of fun when you are not putting your throat at risk. How many of us have modified our two wheelers for fun? We owned them for use (I am happy that things are changing very fast though)
  5. At corporate world we are appreciated for success (only):

    Ganguly dravid

    However, in my present organization we take special care to ensure that real attempts are appreciated and awards are not limited to successful attempts only. In fact, I wrote a mail to all the employees asking them to fail more often.

Things are changing very fast. We (Indians) are trying our best to make failure less fearful both at personal and corporate levels. The term failure is being redefined by the latest high-end mergers and acquisitions by risk taking Indian companies. It may be considered as some indications of the new era.

Abraham Lincoln was a success man
Abraham Lincoln was a successful man

  • Failed in business at age 21.
  • Was defeated in a legislative race at age 22.
  • Failed again in business at age 24.
  • Overcame the death of his sweetheart at age 26.
  • Had a nervous breakdown at age 27.
  • Lost a congressional race at age 34.
  • Lost a congressional race at age 36.
  • Lost a senatorial race at age 45.
  • Failed in an effort to become vice-president at age 47.
  • Lost a senatorial race at age 47.
  • Was elected PRESIDENT of the US at age 52!

9 thoughts on “Why Indians fear failure?

  1. vinay

    our education system is partly to blame , for why we indians fear of “failure” . its a system , that is dominated by rote learning brahminical culture, where emphasis is on less of reasoning and more of rote learning and perfecting the same old theories are encouraged. we need a system where examples ,case studies and experiments are given primary focus , rather than writing class room discussed theories.

    and apart from that, we indians enjoy pulling the legs of fellow indians by discouraging them in order to hide ourr weakness. I firmly believe …that the only remedy to change Indian mentality is to maintain transparency in our social conduct and encourage younger generation to have inter caste marriages…so that the cocoonic behaviour of discrimination and discouraging fellow mates can be totally eliminated from the Indain physche……………….then only an open culture of innovation, failure coupled with success will follow suit.

  2. AjiNIMC Post author

    >> our education system is partly to blame , for why we indians fear of “failure”
    I am waiting for the next generation politicians to bring the BIG CHANGE. I am sure it will change. Even we can contribute a bit, we did it through SOCH http://www.idealwebtools.com/blog/end-soch/ (may be this year, we will bring it back again). In last 5 years, we Indians have gained a lot of global confidence. We have people (just plain graduate) interacting with US companies and dealing with them (they are doing very good).

  3. Nitin Joshi

    well i’d like to be philosophical about it a bit :) …absolutely true about what you say regarding programming kids on set templates of success is killing our creativity, but its the social preassure as well.That is why innovation is not a big thing here, paradigm of success today in society is “whats your CTC” and people succumb to be in that league neglecting anything that “could be termed successful” in that sense musicians ,artists (not bollywood heros), etc innovators, adventure seekers are the ones who define success for themselves and tread that path.

    Success or failure to me is a personal target, i will not judge others neither will be juged by anyone else for my own success or failure. And i cannot do it without a clear concience. thats what i think, at least

  4. AjiNIMC Post author

    >> Success or failure to me is a personal target
    Yeah very true. I remember one sentence that I wrote for my previous company “We value the journey as much as the destination.”, sometimes the journey can be termed more successful that the destination itself. Overall terms are interpreted by humans with their self designed interpreters, it becomes really personal.

    Thanks for the comment, Joshi ji.

  5. Rajesh

    We Indians do fear of failure and thanx a lot for reviving my memories of class 10 practical classes, wow what a day those were indeed in our school also wind mill and solar heater were damn favourite practicle working science projects and in SUPW those table lamp made up of ice cream sticks or tie and die print etc… these are all ubiquitously there in almost all schools at least all KV and Army school of India why this is so…. are the childrens are afraid of trying something new or they get blue print of models from their predecessors or schoo teachers don’t know anything else other apart from these few models which they must have tried hard to understand in their BEd degree or learnt from some books and don’t want to push hard well our group tried for “finding pesticides in vegetable” although we faild and later we got to inject pesticide into potato to come with bluish green colour as the end result which shows that this vegetable contains pesticide (short cut… :D )

    it’s not about a small project models we never want to try and fail and try…for example job interviews people only go for it when no other option left with them in U.S. Silicon valley every day 10 new ventures born and 9 of them die but these 9 again come up with something new they try again and again….but here in India if talk with people of starting new venture they will just turn down with zillions of excuses like fund problem, high risk..etc but no one talk about that very small idea.. they just afraid of taking first noble step, thankfully in MBA 8 two guys has took their 1st noble step even if they fail they are far better than rest 87 (out of 89)

    here we think that failures mean loosers… loosers means fools… and no body wants to be fools everybody wants to cooooooool dude……even if they got to make same wind mill or solar cooker for zillionth time….

    well no ones to blame…..things are changing and hope in future we’ll see great things ……

  6. AjiNIMC aka Web Kotler Post author

    [quote]well no ones to blame…..things are changing and hope in future we’ll see great things ……[/quote]
    Start with making a change in your organization, they will make a change at their homes and their kids in schools and their fields in other homes and so on. Keep spreading the word :)

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