When it comes to failure, is it better to be American or European?

Cambridge researchers throw into doubt the notion that America is a promised land for risk-takers.

Everyone deserves a second chance.

But have you ever wondered if there’s a difference in how two unique, albeit closely related cultures think about those that fail?

Does the country you live in make a difference? Is the US really a paradise for risk-takers? Are the old throngs of Europe rigid and stuffy when it comes to making mistakes?

I asked Twitter this question in August:

Being based in London, my Twittersphere leans towards a more (Western) European following. But the vast majority of my followers are from the design and tech industries—both of which have a large home in the US.

So it was surprising that more than double the number of people chose Europe over the US as being more accepting of failure.

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot since the poll closed. Twitter doesn’t show me who voted, so I can’t look into the locations of the respondents.


Let’s play a game

You’re a young entrepreneur. You’ve been building a company for the past five years but unfortunately – despite tireless commitment – the business has been forced to shut down. You’ve just sold the last of your assets to cover debts, and now you’re back to square one.

Fast forward a few months. The dust has settled, and you’ve had time to understand where things went wrong. You’ve learned a lot and have decided to try again, using all of your experience and insight to do better next time.

Now, where would you rather live this life: Europe or the US?

A key difference often highlighted between European and American attitudes towards failure is in when it comes to entrepreneurialism. The American philosophy of pulling-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps has been credited with the success of everything from Silicon Valley to Wall Street.

According to a report by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, fear of failure varies greatly depending on where you live.

When comparing Europe’s fear of failure (40.7%) and the US (35.2%), it wouldn’t be unwise to choose the US as the better alternative when it comes to being an entrepreneur when you factor in that it’s a culture supposedly more accepting of failure.

Even the NY Post opened a 2014 article about Megan McArdle’s book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success with the line, “America succeeds because Americans fail and forgive.”

But is this true?

2008 study by researchers at the University of Cambridge looked at the connection between economic performance and attitudes toward business failure in the US and the European Union. The goal was to understand whether economic performance correlated to a greater cultural tolerance of failure.

In their research, they discovered that these cultural attitudes had two main components:

  • Failure Tolerance
    The attitude towards the risk of something failing, e.g. A new business

  • Second Chancing
    The acceptance of those who have failed being given a second chance

After reviewing the data, they found that the US appeared to have high levels of failure tolerance but were less likely to give a second chance to those that have tried and failed the first time. They also found that having high-levels of failure tolerance is not correlated with economic growth, whereas having a positive attitude towards second chancing is.

In the end, the benefit (at least economically) of failure doesn’t come from the wholesale permission you give first-timers, it’s more about how accepting your culture is of offering those that have failed a chance to try again.

- Brendan (@brendan_kearns)


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