France is Putting the “F” into “Failure”

A while back I wrote a post on how the French educational system isn’t exactly entrepreneur friendly. And this is just based off of my simple observations and personal experience at a French university. Now that I have attended university in the US, France and the UK, I can say with complete certainty that French professors are by far the harshest with their students when it comes to mistakes. One would think that they get joy out of making their students look ridiculous – even when they make the smallest of errors. I’ve even heard some “feedback” from professors that could make one borderline suicidal. Not exactly what I would call educationally encouraging.

Learning imperfection ?

So, the French grading system makes it literally impossible to get a perfect score in most cases. Students are taught that they cannot be perfect – in all honesty, I quite like this approach but I cannot imagine going through grade school with the impression that I could never get 100%. This rather unhealthy relationship with mistakes, failure and imperfection starts in French classrooms and manages to breed its way throughout various aspects of life – one of them naturally being in the workplace. So when French entrepreneurs start to look a little wobbly, they’re already being told they’re failing.

Failure: some like it not, some like it hot.

What’s hilarious about this is that making mistakes is perhaps the best way to learn. I’m not saying that someone should strive for failure – but when mistakes are kindly pointed out and corrected, it makes for incredibly effective learning. Failure is therefore natural and healthy. One shouldn’t have a fear of it or be ashamed of it – especially not as an entrepreneur, where projects are constantly evolving and being adjusted.

Good job, nice try.

In the US, it’s almost to the other extreme. I remember that sometimes when we would make mistakes in grade school, teachers would still encourage us and say things like “good job” and “nice try.” It made us feel comfortable with sharing our opinions and trying things, even if they were wrong. And if someone can still respect you – even when you make a mistake – it serves as a huge boost of confidence.

Let’s talk about failure, baby.

So now it’s been a few months that I’ve been in touch with Cassandra Philips, who organizes a number of awesome conferences in the Bay Area – including FailCon, a conference dedicated entirely to failure. The last edition of the conference in San Francisco included speakers from companies like Foursquare, MySpace, Revision3, Etsy and Zappos. I imagine you’ve heard of some of those names, right ? Yes, even the best of the best make mistakes. So we are currently in the process of organizing the first European FailCon to take place in Paris later this year*. We’re hoping to get a number of local entrepreneurs to step up and talk about their failures alongside some of the American and international entrepreneurs. Oh, and obviously we’re also encouraging investors to participate and share their thoughts on the value of failure, too.

FailCon 1, FailCon 2.

So FailCon will make its stop in Paris later this year – but before then, Microsoft France is also hosting a mini-FailCon on the 1st of February with some big names in French entrepreneurship, like Gilles Babinet (he’s on my list of 9 French Entrepreneur Names to Know). Hats off to Gilles by the way for being the first incredibly well-respected French entrepreneur willing to share his thoughts with everyone in the French entrepreneurial community – that is huge. I’ll also be moderating and helping to introduce the FailCon concept to the local crowd. Participation is free and you can RSVP directly on the Facebook event page.

Best successful failure stories.

So now I’m on a hunt for the best successful failure stories. There are definitely tons of fantastic examples in the music space, like Deezer or Jiwa (who is set to relaunch very soon). If you have suggestions of failure stories, don’t hesitate to post them in the comments.

*Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in sponsoring or participating as a speaker for this event.

18 thoughts on “France is Putting the “F” into “Failure”

  1. Great post Roxanne! It resonates very well with me as I am a huge fan of Sir Ken Robinson.

    In fact he is the reason I got addicted to TED 🙂 here are couple of his talks that are IMHO the very best talks I have ever seen:

  2. Great post! It is clear that starting a innovating company is a very difficult task: so many things can go wrong, you’re just bound to fail!

    In my first company, we did almost everything wrong but it was an extremely rich experience. I wish someone told me about these things while I was in engineering school… and this is why every year I go back to my school and teach classes. I tell them my story in details with the hope they’ll do better than me 🙂

  3. We can even have a wider look.If we consider the whole life(including all aspects) as a place to educate and learn,it’s so (how many “so” do you want me to add?) funny to expect all of us doings sounds matured(!) and without any mistakes…Come on! We are here to learn and experiments.Unfortunately that’s the severe problem killing lots of talents at least where I live…The outcome of this attitude is nothing just “Fear of thinking”and we may call thinkers in the future : Brave!
    It’s like telling our children “Hey,don’t think boy because you’ll make (possible) mistakes”
    The thing I like to tell these parents and lots of the same people is that: “Can you please explain how your child learn to walk,speak…? Really how?” Sure he/she has done mistakes before being professional walker,fluent speaker …Sigh
    P.S:I don’t and actually no healthy mind regrets using others good experiences but it’s irrelevant to our concept here and we may get wrong!

    Thanks for your nice viewpoint.It was just come up with the pains we are suffering! 🙂

  4. The French education system is really different than US, the relationship is also more complex I guess. Fr professors expect the best from yourself and you learn early not taking remarks or bad grades personally even if you had worked hard. It’s more a challenging game between professors and students, the theoretical statement is “students cannot be better than the professor” and of course, the goal for students is to push limits.
    I know for some people, to be kind of “humiliated” with borderline remarks can boost them to prove they can really do better, self-esteem instinct probably 🙂
    About grades, they are ‘important’ in the school daily social life like a implicit “intellectual ranking” but usually if you get a 10/20 you passed your exams, in the US if you get a 50/100 you failed.

  5. I love the controversy this article breathes, french vs american. Haha. Gets people talking. BUT, the point is a very important one. Failure and success are very, very much intertwined.

    I’m a ‘ricain who’s lived in France off and on for awhile, and as a youth I had ‘la chance’ to do a stint in french high school. Being American, I was oppressed by the lack of opportunity for students to contribute in class. I never skipped a class in all my high school years in the states, but in France it was a way of life!

    For me, it was a clear example of what the latin-american educator, Paulo Freire, called the “banking” approach to education. The teacher has wealth which he/she desposits (oops I mean deposits) in the students’ accounts. This being said, I did have a few great teachers in France who did engage us, and I had a few teachers in the states who we thought were blind because they’d never seen a questioning raised hand.

    Having been in the teaching environment myself for 5 years, I see this as a fairly unhealthy approach to education in general, and really for any social relationship.

    And it’s just too bad, because so much more can be learned and enjoyed through dialogue in the academic environment, which is what Mehdi’s said above.

    On another front, I also think that the American system “overbutters” student evaluations. As Nico pointed out 10/20 passes in France, though even a 79 in the states is pretty poor. French certainly are certainly more at ease with “negativity”, than us puritans in the states (I hope somebody jumps on me for that!).

    In any case, great article, and I love the techbaguette spin which brings us to interesting “failure” conferences here in Paris. Wish I wasn’t out of the country for the next month. Keep the great articles coming, and we’ll keep reading. 🙂

  6. Thank you to everyone for your fabulous comments !

    As both Nico and Brad pointed out, I was obviously terrificly happy with a 10/20 in France (sad, but true) whereas in the US if I was only disappointed with anything that fell below a 90/100.

    I think both situations are exaggerated. In the US, grading and encouragement is extreme whereas in France, harsh criticism is a bit extreme (in my opinion).

    And I didn’t even touch upon the unhealthy student-untouchable/unreachable teacher relationship…

    Then again, one could also argue that in the US, the multiple-choice exam system breeds for less creativity and criticial thinking (also needed in entrepreneurship) as well. I don’t think I ever even heard of a multiple choice exam outside the US.

  7. What a great article !
    I definitely agree: there is a gap between France and US in this subject !

    For my little experience, I get used to be harshly criticized by my teachers. I particularly remember my French teacher in college: he said that my French was very poor, that I was incapable of writing anything interesting and that I will never be graduated. He always gave me 6/20. Last exam of the year, I take a subject he expressly discourage us to take: “If you take this, you’ll have 6 !”. It was an essay about feminism. “In any case, any subject I’ll choose, I’ll have 6, so let’s try this”… I had 18/20. When he gave me my correction, he said “I can’t remove you more points”. I smiled and replied: “What a shame !” I was the hero of my class, the dunce that kicks the ass of the French teacher but I wasn’t proud of that. I was proud because I manage to show him that I was better than he thank I was. 2 months after that, I came back in his classroom to announce him that I was graduated of French “baccalauréat”: 14 in writing expression and 13 in oral presentation. I was euphoric.

    It’s a different way of management / education. Now, when I work with someone, I always ask for feedbacks, and especially negative feedbacks. I think the better way to learn is to make mistakes but don’t get demoralized by this failures. But if nobody points your errors out, how can you learn ?
    “Errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum”

  8. complètement d’accord sur les remarques sur le système d’éducation français qui pousse à ne pas entreprendre.
    Bien vu Roxanne, ça me rappel le livre Candide de Voltaire, ou un type candide observe le monde de ses yeux naifs.
    La c’est pareil, il nous fait une américaine pour bien observer tous les défauts des français et du système français

  9. Candide!

    On avait lu ça au lycée en première et l’année d’après je l’ai cité dans mon High School Yearbook comme Senoir quote:

    “Il faut cultiver son jardin”

    ou on pourrait également dire dans l’exemple de Roxanne:

    “Il faut faire des fautes et apprendre”

    C’est pas le jardin parfait qui compte mais les légumes qui en sortent!

  10. Hey Roxanne

    Thanks for sharing your views and experience. It s very instructive… I d say also that pressure is kinda high in the French school system which has been and still is subject to endless reforms…

    I think in a Republic like France what has been long sought from the young school boys and girls was to develop an ability to express oneself in a refined way in society, or with style. I mean, rhetoric is what French ppl proud themselves on. There is an ‘exception française’. Well that s my take. I was lucky enough to study in Sciences Po and it was all about expressing slick rhetoric and knowing how to organise your ideas properly when asked to develop a subject. Its very demanding, it’s true, it was quite daunting at times!

    But it’s only during tutorials at Aberdeen University, in Scotland, that I found it so much easier to express myself and my ideas. It felt like everybody could take part in group debates because there was less pressure to do well.

    I think Anglo Saxons are more pragmatic. Although in France things are starting to move a little bit.

    I once read this book and like to come back to it at times: “60 M Frenchmen can’t be wrong!”

    Speak later and keep up the good work!!! 😉

  11. Is there a confirmed date yet for Failcon Paris yet? I’ve just read the featured in the UK edition of Wired, which mentioned September. Sounds good.

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