Mike Arrington announced the sad departure from the scene of Edgeio, a company he co-founded. That brought out the usual mix of supportive voices and critics. At AdventNet, the company behind the Zoho services, we have had successes and lots of failures too. We have launched over 60 products covering a variety of areas over the years. Enough of them have succeeded sufficiently well that, collectively, as a company, AdventNet is doing remarkably well. Yet a lot of our products have failed too – in the sense of not making a reasonable return on the time, effort & resources we invested. It is the failures that often stick in the mind, and teach valuable lessons. This post is about failure.
First, let us accept that in almost anything worth doing, anything out of the mundane and the ordinary, a priori odds favor failure, often overwhelmingly so. You want to win a olympic gold medal? Give it up already. You want to win a Nobel prize? Good luck. Even in activities one would think are reasonably predictable (like opening a cafe), odds favor failure, only less overwhelmingly so. So it is obvious that a perfectly rational decision-making process that takes into account only those a priori odds would recommend giving up right at the starting gate.
But here is the crucial point: even if a rational decision-making process took into account the often intangible “situation-specific” information – like the fact that the person who wants to work towards an olympic gold medal is already a star-athlete at the collegiate level or the person who wants to open a restaurant is a great cook – it would recommend giving up. So why does anyone tries to do anything out of the ordinary at all, when the situation is so hopeless a priori?
Therein lies the conundrum: if everyone gave up because of the overwhelming odds, no progress is possible. In other words, only because enough people accept the overwhelming personal risk of failure, collective progress becomes possible.
To bridge that gap between personal failure and collective progress, we need an extra element, to make people persist against the odds. That element goes by different names: the inner confidence, the will power, the stubbornness, the determination, the passion to win – these intrinsically unmeasurable traits make people persist against the odds, and make progress even possible. I call these traits “Rational Faith” – because it is remarkably akin to religious faith. In fact, most people who persist against hopeless odds actually have religious faith in ample degree, so rational faith is well correlated with religious faith. Yet I choose to call this rational faith, because in a collective sense, such a faith is rational – as a posteriori evidence of progress makes clear. It is still faith, because it has to be axiomatically accepted – in the sense that there is no a priori logical proof possible.
Now, for those of you who consider themselves non-religious, the opposite of that rational faith I refer to above is not atheism, but nihilism. From the Wikipedia:
Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, nothing) is a philosophical position which argues that Being, especially past and current human existence, is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.
Rational faith stands in stark opposition to this. You can be of any religious persuasion (or no religious persuasion at all) and still have ample rational faith. Rational faith is beyond conventional categories like good and evil – it is perfectly possible to have a lot of passion for something really evil. Likewise, it is possible to be conventionally religious and still be a nihilist at heart. A reasonable dialog about success and failure is only possible when the rational faith axiom is accepted. In other words, don’t argue with a nihilist!