Embracing Scars

Scar tattoos 1

National Tattoo Day today. A time to celebrate the ancient tradition of inking the skin. Some of my favourite tattoos are the one that celebrate a failure. Buzzfeed featured a colourful collection of such artistry – “13 Awesome Tattoos With A Secret Behind Them”. Coincidentally, our daughter, Isley, recently wrote a play that was produced in London called “Albatross” with similar themes.

Scar tattoos 2


Embracing Catastrophe

Catastrophe journal


It’s not really a catastrophe. It simply feels that way.” – Seth Godin

I’m a big fan of journals. I use them to log my travels, my reflections and even my failures. Seth Godin eloquently advocates the lattermost as a literary embrace of failure in his post “A Catastrophe Journal”:

  • “Every time you’re sure you’ve blown it, completely blown it, that you’re certain you’re going to get disbarred, fired, demoted—becoming friendless, homeless and futureless—write it down in your Catastrophe Journal. Write down.
    • What you did that was so horrible
    • The consequences you expect since the world as you know it is now coming to an end.
  • Do this every time a catastrophe occurs. What you’ll find, pretty certainly, is that two things happen:
    • You will realize over time that your predictions of doom don’t occur, and
    • As soon as you begin writing down the details, the cycle we employ of making the details worse and worse over time will slow and stop.”

Passing Though Imperfection

Seth Godin - failure option

Happy Birthday Seth. One of my longstanding blog inspirations. Like King Friday XIII of Mister Rogers, Seth gives us the gifts on his birthday (at least through me sharing some of my favourite quotes from him on the embracing failure theme)…

  • Going faster doesn’t make you less lost. It’s okay to ask for directions. (Knowing you’re lost is half the battle.)” – Seth Godin, “Not all who are lost, wander
  • The only way is forward. Forward moves us from what we have now (perfect, or at least we’re no longer living in fear of what’s not right) to a world filled with nothing but imperfect. If you want motion, the only way is through. We get to the work we seek by passing through imperfection.” – The Road to Imperfection
  • You’ve permitted magical to walk on by. Not to mention good enough, amazing and wonderful. Waiting for the thing that cannot be improved (and cannot be criticized) keeps us from beginning. Merely begin.” – Seth Godin, “While waiting for perfect
  • One reason people who spend a lot of time thinking about and working on a problem or a craft seem to find breakthroughs more often than everyone else is that they’ve failed more often than everyone else.” – Stumbling Your Way to Greatness
  • The alternative to being a spectator involves failure and apparent risk.” – Watching vs. Doing – Confronting the Spectator Problem
  • Don’t curse the dead ends and the failures. They’re the key element of the work you’re doing. We find our way by getting lost. Anything other than that is called reading a map.” – The Second Time you Create That Breakthrough

Prime Failure

Amazon failure

Happy Birthday Amazon! It turns out that one of the web’s greatest success stories is a glutton for failure. Here are a few examples of their embrace of failures…

  • Costing billions"I’ve made billions of dollars of failures at Amazon.com,’ Mr Bezos told a New York conference sponsored by the news website Business Insider. ‘My job is to encourage people to be bold… If you’re going to take bold bets, there’s going to be experiments.’ He added that "experiments are by their very nature prone to failure. But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.’ The comments came after what appeared to be a disastrous introduction of Amazon’s Fire smartphone, which has failed to gain traction with consumers and led to a loss of $437m in the past quarter. Asked specifically about the smartphone, Mr Bezos said ‘it’s really early’ to judge its success or failure, and added that ‘some of these things need iteration’.” – My decisions have cost Amazon billions, admits founder Jeff Bezos
  • Engineering the Cloud for failure “A common misconception for consumers of cloud services is that SLAs ensure availability. In reality, SLAs do nothing to improve availability. SLAs only provide a way for attorneys to make money arguing over compensation after a failure. In most cases, the eventual compensation is the cost of the services for the outage period, not the loss the outage caused. Cloud service providers must plan and engineer for failure in order to be successful.” – http://www.sendmail.com/sm/blog/wik/?p=1765
  • Where are the losers?The question from an Amazon shareholder at its recent annual meeting: “Amazon seems to be executing well lately — is the company taking enough risks? If it’s still Amazon’s philosophy to make bold bets, I would expect that maybe some of them wouldn’t work out, but I am just not seeing that. So, my question is where are the losers?” Bezos reflected on a number of initiatives (Kindle, AWS, third-party seller business) as well as on the Amazon culture. But the comment that struck me was his more textured conclusion on failure, neither embracing nor rejecting it wholesale: “If you invent frequently and are willing to fail, then you never get to that point where you really need to bet the whole company.”
  • Annual Failure ReportOne area where I think we are especially distinctive is failure. I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins2. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there. The reason that this willingness to tolerate and even celebrate failure is so critical, he continues, is that outsized returns hover behind potential failures: Outsized returns often come from betting against conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is usually right. Given a ten percent chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time. But you’re still going to be wrong nine times out of ten. We all know that if you swing for the fences, you’re going to strike out a lot, but you’re also going to hit some home runs. The difference between baseball and business, however, is that baseball has a truncated outcome distribution. When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. This long-tailed distribution of returns is why it’s important to be bold. Big winners pay for so many experiments.” – 2016 Annual Corporate Letter


fail in public

Chasing Failure


My son Chase has been one of the most helpful contributors to the Embracing Failure blog. In fact, the highest ‘day of publication’ traffic post was a lead from him (“Accidental Artist`). He has embraced the ethos in his own life especially in his own creative pursuits. The latest of which is his truly exceptional podcast series “Field Trips” (also available on Soundcloud and iTunes).

His artistry is expressed in the medium of field recordings which is a somewhat esoteric niche. He tackles that obscurity head on in his podcasts which are sort of a “Field Recording for Dummies”. They not only illuminate the genre, but they also provide an entirely fresh perspective on both the city of London (where they are recorded) and the auditory sense (that often gets neglected as so much simple “background”).

Field recording invariably engulfs a range of acoustic serendipity that he regularly shares in his post describing what he intended when he set out and what he actually got. His piece on the “River Thames” featured a particularly explicit embrace of failure in his examination of why rivers are so popular to record:

  • Grainier sounds help to cover up the inevitable hissing noise that comes from the recording equipment itself meaning a steady background noise ironically makes the recording clearer

He later comments on the equivalent of an audio “bomb” (like a “photo bomb”) when an unexpected and/or unintended sound imposes itself on the recording and how it often leads to curious and more positive results.

Embracing Errors

JFK failure

Happy Birthday JFK. Not only an archetypal Leadager, but also a historic advocate for embracing failure…

  • “For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence…Its mistakes are buried, not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised… This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: ‘An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’ We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.” – JFK

Hugging Failure

Royal procession

  • The British need to learn to love failure. Something we can learn from the Yanks” – Nigel Knowles

The Royal Wedding today is the time to break out the bunting and the cream cakes to celebrate all things British. The independent minded Harry and his American bride introduced a number of innovations to this matrimonial pinnacle of tradition. Perhaps Meghan’s will gently influence other British characteristics such as a more loving embrace of failure. Nigel Knowles’ article “The British need to learn to love failure provides a trumpet voluntary call for a bit more failure in the British culture…

  • “Ben Bernanke, addressing Princeton graduates last month, made the following sage observation: ‘Nobody likes to fail but failure is an essential part of life and of learning. If your uniform isn’t dirty, you haven’t been in the game.’…This is because being a straight-A student does not mean that they are perfect but merely someone who has never done badly in a course – impressive in itself, but also perhaps indicating that they have never really been tested. If they have not been tested to the extent of receiving at least some weak grades, then they are either superhumanly gifted or, I would argue, that they missed out on how to cope with failure. How to cope with failure moulds character in a way that achieving constant ‘success’ never can. And constant success in business is never achievable in the long term. A final thought from Woody Allen: ‘If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.’ Innovation is a process of trial and error – with the latter part being equally as important as the former. Clearly this process must be channelled towards the overarching aim of achieving success, but fearing error means avoiding innovation. Learning from mistakes helps to build better businesses. Of course with failure, a little goes a long way!”

Meghan Markle has already declared “I’m American. I hug.”  And that might just include an embrace of failure.