Tomas Studenik: I want people to take more risks

Tomas Studenik is a Czech innovator, entrepreneur, and the original organiser of Prague’s famous FuckUp Nights. Ahead of joining Amy Edmondson for our panel discussion on intelligent failure, he shared his own philosophy on the subject with NEWTON Today. His insights into the value of embracing and discussing setbacks are essential for students planning to forge their own entrepreneurial paths.

Your career spans multiple domains, many of them slightly unconventional. Could you share what initially drew you to the idea of learning from failure?  

Well, I felt like I had failed at life. Whatever I tried to do, it didn't go well. And instead of being depressed about it or whining about it, I decided I wanted to build on it and to start talking about it without any filters. We’re hardwired to be positive and to want to look successful—to be a valuable member of the tribe. But when I started talking to people about my own failures, I discovered that failure was normal, rather than the exception. 

And then, in 2014, I came across FuckUp nights on YouTube. It was in Mexico, and all these people were having a beer and telling stories about how their lives were falling apart to crowds in a parking lot. I thought, why don’t I do this in Prague? So, I sent them an email, and they said to go ahead. For the first event, I invited three or four speakers, and they talked about how they had failed in business, in life, in sports, the arts, whatever it was, and it really took off from there. FuckUp Nights are now hosted in over 300 cities around the globe, but Prague was the second, after Mexico City. 

Your course on the Science of Failure and your book 'The Art of Failure’ are built on the idea that understanding of the causes of failure allows us to innovate better. Can you expand a bit more on this philosophy?

Trial and error is a core part of the empirical method — It's only when we encounter an issue or something doesn't go as planned that we are forced to stop and think and put our intellect to work. Without failure, we can’t learn or develop. 

We can use this approach in everyday life by giving new things a go, from university courses, to start-ups, to relationships, and adopting an agile mindset where failure is just a part of the learning process. 

Do you ever struggle to put your own advice into practice, and feel the urge to hide yourself away after a failure? 

Absolutely. When things go wrong, my first reaction can be intense, but I've learned to pause and process. Taking a step back helps me see the failure in the context of the bigger picture of what I’m trying to achieve in life. This ability to manage emotions isn't innate; it’s something that takes a lot of training and experience. It’s particularly hard when the failure involves your ego—for example a job interview that goes badly or being rejected by a potential partner—it can feel like life or death. But it isn’t and the key is not to act on your first impulse of frustration or anger.

Do you have any advice for students who want to accelerate the process of developing a healthy relationship with failure? 

Practice is vital. Sit down with friends or siblings and ask them to reject you to your face by saying, “I don’t like you, you’re horrible”, or something similar, and try to not feel upset by that.

It's essential to remember that rejection often says more about the other person than about you—they’re dealing with some shit and they’re pouring it all over you. Understanding this can make it easier to handle.

You’ve worked abroad, and with international companies at home. How does the Czech attitude to failure compare to other cultures?

I’ll give an example from a hackathon I recently co-organised in London focused on the future of education with generative AI. It brought students from London universities and Czech universities together with industry professionals. At the end of the Hackathon, the students had to pitch their ideas, and the difference in presentation skills between the British and Czech teams was striking. 

Public speaking invokes a fear of rejection in many people, and it can be paralysing, but it didn’t seem to intimidate the British teams at all – they were naturals at selling their ideas and engaging the audience. The Czech teams, despite having strong technical knowledge, lacked the self-confidence to get the audience excited about their ideas. I don’t know if the difference is culture or schooling, but it’s something we have to change.

You’ve been organising FuckUp Nights for around ten years. Have you noticed a difference in that time in terms of how willing people are to come to share their failure stories?

I'm not sure. The reason I keep pushing this agenda is that failure is inevitable on the path to building something meaningful. And, unfortunately, I see that fewer and fewer people are willing to start their own projects. I think it’s because of the insecurity we all experienced during COVID. As a result, people are choosing stable jobs over starting their own businesses. 

So, I think my mission still has some way to go—there will always be a trade-off between risk and safety, and I want to encourage more people to take risks. 

What advice would you give to a student interested in starting a business?

When you’re young is the best time to take risks. You have no family, no mortgage, you can sleep at a friend’s house—the costs of failure are the lowest they will ever be in your life. 

The other advice I would give is not to take anyone else’s money to power your ideas. Ideas are plentiful. You need to find out if there’s a market for it, show that it works in the real world and that there are customers willing to pay. Start small and grow organically—just yourself, perhaps with some friends on board. And if your idea gains traction, then the money will come naturally.

Your own work is unconventional and seems to involve a lot of risks—such as your THEaiTRE project, where AI wrote a theatre play. How does your attitude towards failure affect your approach going into projects like this? 

Well, usually I have ten ideas on the go and, of those, one or two make it beyond the initial stages. And, naturally, lots fail. The longer I live, the less disastrous these failures feel—I recognise them as part of the learning curve. I analyse what happened and use that knowledge when I start my next project. 

I also think it’s important not to take yourself too seriously. Whenever I come across someone who thinks their mission or project is incredibly important, I encourage them to read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. The bigger picture is that we’re all going to die, and in one or two generations, no one will know your name. I think failure is easier if you believe this. 

Is there anything final you'd like to share with the Newton community? 

Well, it's called Newton University, so I would remind all students of the fact that Isaac Newton didn’t discover the laws of gravity in a lab. 

It's the same with start-ups. You won’t come up with your best ideas sitting around and thinking really hard. These ideas come to you when you least expect them — when you’re in the bath, walking your dog, or just falling asleep. 

But if you’re overworked, stressed, and focussed on one goal, then you won’t have these moments where you’re thinking about nothing, letting your mind wander. So, my advice is to remember to take time off for yourself—that’s when you get the best ideas.

That sounds like great advice. Thank you very much for your time today, Tomas.

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