FAILURE: The “Other ‘F’ Word” – Success & Innovation’s Sibling?

Princeton students are quite appropriately focused, if not actually fixated, on success – in the classroom, on the field and for their emerging careers. But success has a much less well-understood sibling, which is often a precursor and even prerequisite for that success, whether in business, science, athletics or the arts. Failure.

Although we may treat failure as a regrettable event, it has the potential to become a strategic resource, invaluable in its ability to show us - sometimes painfully and usually uncomfortably - what we don’t yet know but need to in order to succeed in our chosen objective.

Failure’s like gravity – a subtle, pervasive but invaluable fact of life. The Wright Brothers used it to fly; the ancient Romans to deliver fresh water to 1.5 million residents; and Nobel prizewinners to make profound discoveries in their labs – not to mention entrepreneurs, artists, authors, architects and athletes who’ve used the lessons of failure to achieve impressive success. In short, as much as we might prefer to deny or defy it, failure will be a likely companion in much of what we do, and our attitudes and skill in dealing with it can shape our own trajectory of accomplishment.

This seminar will offer incoming freshmen a unique interdisciplinary window into this “other ‘f’ wor[l]d” of failure, with an opportunity to see firsthand how valuable it can be in the pursuit of success. In addition to utilizing my own recent book on this topic (The Other ‘F’ Word: How Leaders, Teams and Entrepreneurs Put Failure To Work, John Wiley & Sons, 2015), we will explore additional readings from history, technology, behavioral economics, psychology and even philosophy to anchor our class [see sample readings list]. Whether by Skype-style video or in person, we will also hear from prominent experts and professionals – from academia, entrepreneurship, politics and the arts – who will share candidly their own failure-centric insights with their future counterparts.

This seminar is not for the faint-hearted. We’ll explore some discomforting territory, but it should be a fascinating odyssey through unfamiliar and very familiar terrain. Curiosity, creativity, a spirit of open-minded inquiry and perhaps a dose of humility and humor will be the prerequisites for admission. In the event the seminar is oversubscribed, I would invite interested students to submit a short essay outlining their reasons for wanting to join our class.

This course takes place during Fall 2017 on Mondays from 7:30pm to 10:20pm.

So You Want to Change the World?

Governments struggle to address awesome challenges facing our communities, country, and planet. Private sector entrepreneurs increasingly step up to solve them.

These social entrepreneurs (SEs) define a problem (or broken system), and then develop new ways to address it — at the root of the problem. Motivated by social or environmental change, SEs attract others to their cause. They assemble a team, funding, technology, and networks to create a social enterprise — the vessel that moves them forward. SEs often lead by example, shouldering risks and forcing others to think differently.

SEs are not always extroverts, CEOs, or leaders, however. In fact, most SEs will serve in support roles in teams. These "intrapreneurs" are often the unsung heroes of organizations and businesses. How do we nurture them?

SEs must do all that conventional business entrepreneurs do — design effective products, fundraise, manage financials, build teams, persevere, etc. But they also must navigate complex, high-risk, and politically charged settings; underdeveloped success measures; diffused accountability; scarce access to capital; and the ever-present potential for unintended bad consequences, despite good intentions.

Most successful SEs are driven by personal experiences with pain or injustice. They hold a binary mindset, allowing them to master their profession, yet retain enough distance to be able to change the rules of that profession. They remain hopeful, even when evidence of hope may not exist.

Are successful SEs the result of nature or nurture? This discussion-based seminar will explore that question and current research on the psychology and anthropology of SE leaders.

Students will learn to "map" complex social systems, discover "best" or at least "pretty good" SE practices, and explore their own SE options, tendencies, and ideas. In this Community Based Learning Initiative (CBLI) seminar, students will meet, interact with, and write about current social entrepreneurs in the region.

Taught by Martin Johnson, a 1981 alumnus, and founder and CEO of Isles, a 36-year-old Trenton, New Jersey–based sustainable development organization that arose from a student seminar at Princeton, this seminar will also include a case study of his son, Jeremy Johnson, a 2007 alumnus and co-founder of two successful for-profit social impact technology companies, 2U.com and Andela. Martin Johnson also teaches a 400-level course, EGR 498 "Rethinking Social Profit Organizations."

This course takes place in Spring 2018 on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 10:20 p.m.