Is failure the bridge from ‘conscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious competence’, between ‘street smart’ and ‘book smart’, between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’, between ‘strategy’ and ‘execution.’ Is failure the heat that forges useful metal from the ore of ideas and concepts? Does failure make great thinking ‘real’?
Eric Brown notes in his ‘Connecting Technology, Strategy and Execution blog:
“All the theory in the world is worth very little if someone doesn’t apply it in the real world…and applying theory usually results in failure somewhere.”
It reminded me of the chat I had over a cup of tea with our plasterer who was working on some redecorating for us. He was talking about how hard it was to find properly ‘qualified’ plasterers these days describing, “They all come out of a training course thinking that they know the trade, but all they know is the book stuff.” He went on to explain that while the basic training was a crucial foundation, people really needed to serve a period of ‘apprenticeship’ to learn the craft mostly to go through all of the ‘failures’ that confront every job:
“The books tell you how to do it the right way and cover all the basic situations. But what they don’t tell you is what to do when something goes wrong. How to handle those strange and unusual situations. A strange shape of wall. A weird angle with something jutting out. An unusual base material. They may be unusual, but sure as Murphy’s Law they will always come up on every job. And being able to handle those tricky situations is the difference between a good job and a not so good job. And you only learn that by spending time going through them with someone who has been through it all before to help you through them.”
In short, he is saying that the difference between a good job and not good, between ‘book learning’ and ‘mastery’ is experiencing all of the ‘failures’, those deviations from the norm and the theory which permeate every contract. Coincidentally, this very spirit of ‘apprenticeship’ was played out dramatically in the third season of Donald Trump’s ‘Apprentice’ television show where the producers explicitly pit the ‘book smart’ against the ‘street smart’.
Brown alludes to ‘Conscious Incompetence,’ linking to Carmine Coyote’s ‘Slow Leadership’ blog on the subject:
“Conscious Incompetence is doing something that you know you can’t yet do, let alone do well, for the purpose of learning how to do it better. It’s allowing yourself to make a mess and get things wrong, because you’ll never know how to do better until you get past that point. And it’s the basis of all learning. If you can’t allow yourself to make mistakes and probably look silly doing it; if you can’t allow yourself to attempt what you know you won’t be able to do at first; if you can’t allow yourself to take the risk of screwing up; then you also can’t allow yourself to learn or develop.”
It is that state of development where one knows quite a bit about a subject, but more importantly ‘knows what they don’t know’. Brown and Coyote prescribe an approach of embracing failure to achieve the highest level of competence.
Finally, I have to note another great Winston Churchill quote on failure cited by Coyote:
“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”