July 10, 2008

Free to fail

I happened to have a wander on the US Embassy site while making an appointment for a passport renewal (a new addition to security over on via Veneto) and found Ambassador Spogli's July 4 speech to those lucky hundreds who enjoyed the gardens of Villa Taverna for the occasion. It is in Italian -- I would assume very few of the Italians present could understand English -- but I will share it with you anyway (click here).
because it is a good read. THe theme I liked was that of building on your failures and he opens with the story of the AMerican revolution as beginning with a defeat and becoming a success through perserverance. The lesson is that, Libertà non vuol dire libertà di riuscire, ma libertà di tentare, "Liberty doesn't mean the liberty to succeed but the liberty to try, then try and try again."

In his travels around Italy over the past three years, he has found an archipelago of outstanding centers of excellence in many sectors of the economy, but he also found that these islands have difficulty communicating with each other across the traditional channels available in order to forge synergies. Italy, he understands, is a country that is very tied to its traditions and therefore resources tend to flow through pre-established channels. The rigid system that exists today is due, in part, by the fact that a business failure is punished by a sort of social emargination that leads to the impossibility to access new capital for a new project.

So his parting words to Italy were to give young people the possibility to try, and to fail, and then to try again. Quoting Winston Churchill who said, "Success means passing from one failure to another without losing enthusiasm." Italian young people, he then noted, are too afraid of the consequences of their eventual mistakes. "We have to limit these consequences so that young people can continue to dream and look towards the future with enthusiasm. This is the energy that will take Italy into the future."

An applause from me, mother of two young men poised to enter that rigid, punitive system where fear of failing often stifles the desire to try. Then, of course, all this talk of rigidity is irrelevant if you walk into the family business where you are nurtured and can try and fail and try and fail and then have a huge success. Look at Lapo Agnelli. He will find his way, contribute to FIAT's success, and will be stronger for all his failures.

a domani,


SteveNYC said...

Ambassador Spogli makes an interesting observation and his advise should be well heeded.

But it seems to me that this speech is contrary to some of the observations that you have made in this blog. Namely, the "group mentality" that permeates in Italian culture (e.g. a teacher not singling out a bad apple in a classroom) and by extension, how blame/success is not attributed to a single individual but rather to the entire group to which he belongs. How does this cultural phenomenon jive with the assertion that "a business failure is punished by a sort of social emargination that leads to the impossibility to access new capital for a new project"?

Also, how does this emargination take place? Are the credit ratings of the owners behind the failed business venture irreparably harmed? Do the banks share names of borrowers that failed to pay?

Elizabeth Abbot said...

Hi Steven in NYC.
Good questions! Gosh, let me think about this one. I am not sure about the specific mechanisms in place (and I should find out), but in any case, there is very little venture capital out there and few "angel investors" while the traditional credit channels are quite rigid and require a high level of equity and guarantees. Getting access to these channels can often require being presented and having a guarantor (who does not want to make a "brutto figura"). There is also social stigma to a failed business attempt, maybe it puts you "out" of your "in group". Your personal failure is reflected on the group. Anyway, there are some very subtle nuances at work in this area. I will get back to this.
Thanks for stopping by.