The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

Can You Fake Failure Part II: The ‘Alan Sugar Effect’

I’ve been doing some work, but kept thinking about the ‘failure week’ training I wrote about earlier – and it has now really started to annoy me! I really want to know who are in these YouTube clips talking about becoming succesful after failing – because it seems to me that this whole thing is fundamentally flawed; the same error that is made when talking about Alan Sugar.

For those who may not be from these shores (I can’t imagine anyone in the UK doesn’t know who he is), Alan Sugar is an entrepeneur and businessman who famously started his own business in his teens, buying and selling, and went on to create a massive business empire (most notably, Amstrad computers). Aside from being a very good businessman, he is the unofficial poster-boy for the ‘no point in going to university’ brigade. Go to any newspaper story on the web about UK universities, find the comments section and, somewhere in there, will be a ‘Alan Sugar didn’t go to university and it didn’t do him any harm’ comment.

Now, that is perfectly true (and isn’t even an issue – this isn’t a piece about whether people should go to university or not) – but it creates an incredible bias in people’s minds – Alan Sugar didn’t go to university and he did all right, therefore university is a waste of time. But… he is an anomoly – he succeeded. For every Alan Sugar there are probably a thousand Joe Bloggs’ who didn’t go to university, started their own business buying and selling in their teens – and failed. But people seem to be able to avoid thinking about them.

So, back to the school… you can sit all of these students in front of a computer and show them a video of someone who failed but achieved eventually, but there will be something nagging inside of the students, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it; it is the implicit knowledge of the video they aren’t watching – the one of the person who failed, ended up with a ruined business and thousand pounds worth of debt and threw themselves off a bridge. Just because it isn’t being played out in front of us doesn’t mean that we can pretend it isn’t there – it is almost a survival instinct inside of us.

Because maybe a healthy fear of failure is a good thing – maybe it is what drives some of us. The bit that really annoyed me in the original piece was the talk about ‘the merits of failure’ – THERE ARE NO MERITS TO FAILURE! Talk about minimising the negatives of failure, that is fine, no problem with that. Talk about how to use what you have learnt in order to succeed in the future – again, no problem. But don’t dress failure up as a noble thing which is good for us – it isn’t, it is failure!

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Categorised in: Education, Psychology

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