- “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.
The conventional wisdom is that most people hide their past failures from their resume, but Johannes Haushofer actually added a special section to his CV that highlighted his failures. Mind you, he noted a “Meta-Failure” later that “This darn CV of Failures has received way more attention than my entire body of academic work.”
Sometimes failure when you are young seems more hazardous. You are at a more fragile point in your life, you are less savvy and therefore more prone to mistakes, and you have your whole life ahead of you so early missteps seem like they will haunt you for yours to come. But Catherine Baab-Muguira’s piece “The good news about failing at absolutely everything in your 20s” provides insightful advice to people embracing failure early in their creative careers:
- Your 20s are a good time to “fail early, fail often.” – Take advantage of the relatively low stakes. Chances are that mortgages and kids aren’t a part of your problem set just yet (or if they are, you still have a lot of energy). Failure is a useful data point.
- Sometimes what you’re encountering is not failure but a “gravity problem.” – Once you accept the basic truth of the situation, you’re in better position to adjust to the constraints.
- The straight path is often an optical illusion – Overnight success is largely a myth. It’s worth remembering that you probably don’t know the gory details of the story. Trust me: that Instagrammer with the seemingly perfect life has also spent her fair share of nights crying and staring at the ceiling, worried out of her mind about money and love. It’s just part of the human condition.
- Rationalization can be a beautiful thing – Daniel Gilbert notes that humans aren’t great at predicting what will actually make them happy. At the same time, we are pretty good at rationalizing what does happen. In other words, rationalization is an important, underrated coping skill.
- Some fantastic art has been made about failure, too – Is it any wonder that the best TV made by millennials, including Insecure and Girls, is all about one’s 20s playing out as a confused, chaotic mess? Many artists have made great work out of their misspent youths. Just a few examples include Meghan Daum (see her essay: “My Misspent Youth”) and nearly every poem Philip Larkin ever wrote. Your mistakes can give you something to say to the world. And nothing breaks the ice like admitting your life hasn’t worked out quite according to plan.
World Design Day today. As the featured video above notes, one would think that creative types like designers would appreciate the mantra of embracing failure, but it always bears repeating and Extra Credits underscore it in a colourful way with their video (thanks Chase):
- “The one most basic lesson of design. Fail faster. This is the designer’s credo. It is our mantra. It is our goal of every waking second of every day. Fail Faster. No ideal is ever fully formed…The art of what we do is simply spirally towards the centre course correcting along the way…because without testing and without exposing your thoughts to others and embracing how many horrible mistakes and egregious errors you made in your last pass, you will never create a good game…No idea is good. Choose something, begin to iterate, and fail faster.”
Seth Godin also talks about the design imperative of embracing failure in his post “Graceful Degradation” arguing that it’s not just about failing in the design process, but also designing for inevitable failures once the product is designed:
- “Stuff’s going to break. Then what? Air conditioners, for example, gradually lose their charge. When they do, icing can occur. When that happens, the drain pans overflow and water seeps away. The smart builder, then, anticipates all this and has the pan connected to some sort of drain, as opposed to having it rot the beams or collapse a ceiling. Most failures aren’t shocking surprises. The law of large numbers is too strong for that. Instead, they are predictable events that smart designers plan for, instead of wishing them away as rare unpredictable accidents…The most hackneyed line in design is, ‘first, do no harm.’ A more useful adage is, ‘when weird stuff happens, make sure it doesn’t cause harm you didn’t expect or plan for.’ For work where the outcome matters, consider the immortal words of the Smith System, ‘Always leave yourself an out’."
Infertility Awareness Week this week. One of the most pervasive and heartfelt dreams people can have is bringing new life into the world. Unfortunately, this dream evades many who face fertility problems that not even the latest treatments can overcome. But rather than letting the death of this dream deflate them, Spencer and Whitney Blake from Idaho started a sterling blog called “On An Adventure” where they openly discussed and embraced their problems with conceiving and let to the exciting odyssey of the adoption of their two boys:
- “The couple began blogging about their experience with adoption at the suggestion of their agency, and has continued to post updates to inspire other families. ‘We share our experience with adoption, particularly open adoption, because we want people to know that it’s not something strange, uncommon, or scary,’ the pair wrote. ‘It’s beautiful’.”
Particularly noteworthy are the light-hearted photos they assembled to announced to the world their infertility in an effort to diffuse its stigma and lessen its sadness (see above and below).
This blog is ostensibly about “failure” but really it is about a much broader and more abstract notion of the “the other side”. The other side to upside, to fortune, to plans, to goals. The ying to the yang. Failure is just one example of the “other side”.
I particularly appreciated Hugh’s post and print on “negative space” (no, not that “space”) which is literally a fine illustration of this concept.
- “In the arts, we call it negative space: the utilization of space between objects, patterns, what have you. It’s what makes the FedEx logo so genius. When you look closely between the E and the X, there’s an arrow. And for FedEx, that arrow is what it’s all about. It’s not just the FedEx logo, it’s language as a whole. Language is a social construct, something we’ve created to suit our needs. And it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, the word we’re looking for doesn’t exist in our language or society. And then the truth of your meaning is in the silence. The silence between words is often where the meaning falls.”
Silence isn’t just golden itself, but it sometimes the ingredient which gilds poetry with pauses, comedy with timing, and drama with intonation.
The heir apparent to the title of Celebrity Scientist in Chief is likely to fall to Neil deGrasse Tyson who like Hawking, has tackled universe-size topics, made complex concepts accessible and even heralded the embrace of failure integral to all science. You will find all of these aspects in this superb “Inexplicable Universe” series which is available in its entirety on YouTube. In particular, the “Inexplicable Cosmology” episode (minute 13:00) credits the very existence of the universe itself on nature’s embrace of failure”
- “Nature disobeyed its own laws. At some point, a high energy beam of light created an anti-matter particle without its anti-matter particle. That’s a breaking of the symmetry. We know how often this must have happened…1 in 100 million. This anti-matter particle will live forever. It’s got nobody to annihilate with. So in fact, the universe that we see, know and love today is the consequence of broken symmetry in the very early universe…Unless nature breaks its own rules, we wouldn’t even be here to contemplate that nature broke its own rules.”