Innovation Hub: Joi Ito on Failing to the Top

Joi Ito may be a tech luminary, but he says that he has mostly learned by failing.

Ito—an early investor in Twitter, Kickstarter, and Flickr—is now the head of the MIT Media Lab. And he believes that young people, entrepreneurs, and even those in established positions should be encouraged to try more and fail more. I sat down with Ito to find out why taking chances is so crucial.

Kara Miller: Explain why failure is important.

Joi Ito: So, the cost of failure has gone down. What I mean by that is—to start a website costs almost nothing. To start something that would have been like a website before the Internet would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars. So, since the cost of failure is so cheap, the cost of sitting around trying to decide whether to do something or not actually is higher in many cases than the cost of actually just trying it.

KM: People talk a lot in Silicon Valley about how failing is important, but our society is not really built around rewarding failure. So what does it take to get from where we are to where you want us to be?

JI: So, I think school is going to be very hard to modify. And my view is that we’re going to be doing this outside of school. But you kind of have to do it early. I think the period of your 20s is really important, because once you get into your 30s and 40s, it’s hard to bet the house on something.

KM: You started lots of companies early on but didn’t graduate from college—and neither did Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs. Should we just not bother with college anymore?

JI: I probably would have had a higher probability of success if I had graduated. I think that we should wholeheartedly overhaul higher ed, but I think that pointing out that a lot of people who are successful are dropouts overlooks the fact that for every one of those, there are 100 people who are getting paid less because they didn’t complete their degrees.

KM: Finally, I know that you’re the custodian of a World of Warcraft guild. And I wonder if you feel like videogames could be deployed more as a tool of education.

JI: There’s a metaphorical learning that a five-year-old kid gets when running a team of 40 adults against a monster that that kid can use in management. Probably running a guild in World of Warcraft teaches you more about management than reading a whole bunch of case studies.

[This interview has been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, visit]

Kara Miller is the host of “Innovation Hub,” a national radio program that features the thinkers, researchers, and visionaries who are crafting the future. She is based at WGBH Radio in Boston. Follow @IHubRadio

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