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Ian Bassin Headshot

Hillary: A Lesson in Failure

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With all the praise falling around Hillary Clinton as she exits her post, I'd like to offer an ode to her as a failure, and a great one at that. I don't mean that she was a failure as Secretary of State; quite the opposite. She's rightfully being celebrated as one of the most successful and influential leaders of our generation. But she's only gotten there by surmounting defeats that would have felled legions of weaker comers, and therein may lie the true lesson of her legacy.

Failure is in vogue these days. Last fall, the World Bank sponsored the third annual FAILFaire conference in Washington, a gathering designed to highlight and celebrate the role of failure in innovation and progress. In Silicon Valley, the concept du jour of the "lean startup" is to find ways to fail faster so you can eliminate ineffective options at the least cost. And best-selling Black Swan author Nissam Nicholas Talib has just penned a follow-up tome on how to harness failure most effectively as an asset.

Of course, while the merits of failure may be experiencing a bit of a renaissance, the concept is not new. Referring to the 10,000 attempts it took him to perfect the light bulb, Thomas Edison famously described the first 9,999 not as failures, but as necessary steps in the process of invention.

But perhaps no better testament to the benefits of failure exists these days than Hillary Clinton. Consider first her role as First Lady. Given off-the-bat the most important domestic policy portfolio in the White House, her flameout on health care was epic. And then, of course, there was the public and humiliating unraveling of her marriage, or at least certain vows of it. But perhaps there is no bigger failure that one can make on the world stage than running for President of the United States - as an overwhelming favorite, no less - and losing. And Hillary did that with gusto too.

And yet, for twenty years running, she's the most admired woman in the world. By a lot. The explanation for this can be found in what is perhaps her most famous political quote, delivered upon losing the Democratic nomination: "Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it." This is the nature of her genius: recognizing that every failure is a block to build on. And build on them she has.

As Secretary of State, her term was marked by her willingness to aim high. By successfully mobilizing the controversial charge for aggressive involvement in Libya, she helped deliver a model for humanitarian intervention that liberals have been searching for since the days of Gladstone. In Burma, she made a strategic bet on forward-leaning engagement, with cautiously promising returns so far. And when the U.S. found Osama Bin Laden, she advocated not telling the Pakistanis, risking a massive diplomatic rift that could have led to failure in countless ways, but contributed to the Administration's foreign policy pinnacle instead. Even while failing to convince the President to take more forceful steps in Syria, she may be remembered as the moral conscience of the Administration's darkest moment.

Every decision at that level bears significant risk, but if anything, politicians are adept at dodging the hardest ones. Not Hillary, who in never flinching has still spun more gold than straw, while accumulating piles of both. In this she is somewhat unique. President Obama is less familiar with failures of Clintonesque proportions. Aside from some lost teenage years and a failed Congressional run, his ascent has been rather blessed. And one need only conjure the image of a bedheaded Mitt Romney pumping his own gas to see what un-weathered failure looks like.

I was not a Hillary supporter in 2008. I got on the Obama bus early. In addition to the many attributes that drew me to the President that are not germane here, I was concerned Hillary would struggle to win back independents and would ignite the same right wing ire of her White House years and therefore would ultimately lose the general election or deepen partisan divides. And I was disturbed at the message we would send to our kids and the precedent it would set to crown two royal families for 24 straight years: Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton.

But I've been trying in my own life to embrace the risk/failure model more and in that respect I've come to see and appreciate Hillary in a whole new light, as someone unafraid to shoot for the stars, to fail, and to pick herself up again (and again) and succeed. For this reason and others, count me among her many admirers, and as someone who will set his sights at the high ideal of trying to emulate failure of the Hillary Rodham Clinton sort.

Michaelangelo once said that "the greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark." Hillary Clinton has never done that. I have a feeling she's not planning on lowering her sights anytime soon. And as for that remaining goal of her's, based on the lessons she's learned from failing, it's unlikely she'll fall short again.