Q&A TED Conferences

Ashton Kutcher on being a “magnificent failure”: A Q&A at TEDYouth

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May
To close out TEDYouth, Ashton Kutcher gave a talk on failure. Only, the kids in the audience had no idea he'd be stepping on the stage. Photo: Ryan Lash

To close out TEDYouth, Ashton Kutcher gave a talk on failure. The kids in the audience had no idea he’d be stepping on the stage; his appearance caused quite a commotion. Photo: Ryan Lash

“I am a magnificent failure,” Ashton Kutcher announced on the TEDYouth stage in New Orleans earlier today. “I screw up so much it hurts.”

The star of television show Two and a Half Men said this not to be self-deprecating or to beat up on himself, but to drive home the point that failure is a part of life — and one that can prompt profound “aha” moments. “You see, you have to take a risk to be a magnificent failure. The most successful people I know in the world are magnificent failures,” he said. (Read a write-up of Kutcher’s talk, as it is not yet available on video. While you’re there, read recaps of the other wonderful speakers at today’s conference.)

Kutcher was originally slated to give a much lighter talk at TEDYouth — on the things he learned working as a dishwasher, a butcher and a deli employee on his way to becoming an actor and producer. But he says that, as he sat down to write his talk, it didn’t feel completely honest. The TED Blog spoke to him after he left the stage to discuss why.

What made you decide to switch from giving a talk about what you learned from assorted jobs to this much bolder talk?

I thought about the audience that I was addressing. The kids who are here, they actually had to work to come to TEDYouth. They’re kids who are curious enough to go online and look up TED, which is probably not required learning for them. They’re already adventurous, curious, hard-working people. So to talk about work and hard work seemed safe and it seemed like, for them, it would be redundant. Whereas talking about failure is something that everyone is afraid to talk about. And yet the only way you can really learn from failure is if you’re verbal about the fact that you failed so that the smartest people that you have around you in your life can help you learn.

Why do you think we’re hesitant to talk about failure?

Well, I think we’re taught that success is the ultimate outcome. Failing is looked down upon. I think there’s an entrepreneurial collective that’s starting to change that perception of failure — that’s starting to recognize that when you fail, it can be one of the greatest moments of your life if you approach it with a determination to actually learn from your mistakes.

Was there an element of letting the audience know, if they run into circumstances like the ones you mentioned, it’s okay?

I’ll hope not these exact things. But getting in trouble with the law is something that people face. One big reason to talk out loud and admit your failures to young people is so that when they fail, they don’t feel like they’re “bad kids.” I don’t think there are bad kids, just good kids who make bad choices. But I think you can really lock yourself into thinking you’re a bad kid if the adults you admire in the world never talk about how they fail.

You said in your talk, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” How do you get past the idea that there is going to be one thing you do in your life?

You just never allow yourself to believe that there is one thing. I mean, for some people there very much is–some people find their passion early in life. They know exactly what they want to do and they pursue it and they take higher and higher education in that thing. But a lot of people right now go to college and they don’t even know what they want to do. I sometimes wonder if they’d be better off going and getting a job and working for passionate people and then deciding what their passion is.

I’m curious: what’s the last piece of incredible advice you got from a kid or teenager?

It was something really simple. I remember a kid came up to me and said, “Dude, just have fun.” I think that’s great advice. Sometimes we get way too serious. “Just have fun” is pretty incredible advice.