Years ago, when I was a teenager working as a summer camp counsellor, I was given a very valuable lesson in the expectation of success. (Full disclosure: I have yet to actually learn this lesson, but I’m trying. Lordy, am I trying.)
I was caring for a four-year-old whose mum had gone on an overnight trip, and as the day grew darker, my little charge became more and more anxious. I cuddled and soothed her, but nothing helped — she wanted her mum.
Her whimpers turned to full-on crying and I, agitated at the prospect of failing my job so completely, began to shush the poor kid. Obviously, this didn’t help, but I was dogged in my determination to ‘make it work’.
So I kept on. The harder she cried, the more I shushed, until the child astounded me by pausing mid-sob, staring me straight in the eye, and hollering at me with absolute righteousness,
“Don’t you know?! It’s OK to cry!!”
I was speechless. Of course it’s OK to cry — especially when you’re four. Who the hell was I to insist this kid buck up and ‘make it work’ when, clearly, it just wasn’t working?I was speechless. Of course it’s OK to cry — especially when you’re four. Who the hell was I to insist this kid buck up and ‘make it work’ when, clearly, it just wasn’t working?
Like it or not, failure IS an option
I summon this anecdote because I think it speaks to a culture of fear of failure — a culture I am very much a part of.
Most people are taught, both implicitly and explicitly, by a variety of teachers, that failure is not acceptable. So we equate little-picture failure with big-picture failure, and we learn that in order to be good at something, and to have worth, we must expect and deliver success all the time.
This is ridiculous, but it’s the way we are, and it is crippling the very spirit of innovation.
What’s so bad about a little bit of failure?
We’d invited Mike round to tell him about the work we’re doing with to help UK tech businesses get started in new markets. We’re designing a free, collaborative, peer-to-peer knowledge exchange (you can find out all about it on Going Global) and we’re getting pretty excited about it.
We discussed our project in some detail (see A chat with Mike Butcher), but we soon settled into the broader topic of success and failure… and why we’re so hung up on them.
Mike pointed out that in Europe, and in the UK in particular, we fear failure. We tend to see it as an end, and a comment on our worth. We do this because we see success and failure as an either/or pairing: two opposite states with no possibility of overlap.
Naturally, we want to be successful… but this means we’ve also become averse to failure, dogmatically so. And this is dangerous for two reasons.
Firstly, by making it unacceptable to fail, we’re making things harder on ourselves — and to what end? As that precocious four-year-old pointed out, sometimes it all gets a bit much and you just can’t hack it.
But secondly, and this is the bit that’s really relevant to the work we’re doing, once this aversion becomes institutionalised, the poison spreads: ideas aren’t allowed to fail, even if they should. And in an effort to avoid failure, we avoid risk, which means we start aiming a little lower.
The fruits of this slightly compromised labour are not-quite-good-enough ways of thinking and working. These get propped up and become incorporated into our lifestyles, because the alternative would be for them to fail, and we don’t want that (especially after we’ve spent lots of money propping them up). So we don’t allow them to fail — success at any cost, right?
But the problem with ‘success at any cost’ is that the cost is HIGH. Really, really astronomically high. (Um… economic crisis, anyone…?)
Why this is relevant to us right now
The whole ‘failure friendly’ discussion isn’t new, but it’s worth dragging out of the cupboard and re-examining, especially because we’re about to make a big contribution to start-up culture.
This project (the one we’re blogging about on Going Global) offers an opportunity to do something right for the British tech industry, and this is where our discussion got really interesting.
Mike suggested we look at a book called Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. It explores a start-up-friendly culture, where, if someone wants to do something and has a plan, they tend to get funded more often than not. The book cites Israel’s as “a business climate in which risk is embraced and good ideas are given a chance to grow” (quote from the Publishers Weekly Editorial Review).
The successful side of failure
This culture of fail-friendliness and the widespread acceptance of managed risk brings about a sort of accelerated Darwinism, where the faster you fail, the faster you get to the right idea and succeed. By and large, the UK and Europe are adverse to risk and failure, whereas Israel and the US, to a lesser degree, tend to be more willing to dive in, even if failure is a very real possibility.
Mike’s suggestion to us, and it’s one we’re keen to take on board, is to make our service fail-friendly. Shoot straight with people: not only won’t you always succeed, but in fact, you shouldn’t. Informed, managed risk is healthy. Failing fast and early means a softer fall and, in the best cases, a shorter time to success.
So what can we do to live this message?
Our own Mike Laurie has also blogged about agencies and failing, and how this is not necessarily a bad thing… far from it, actually.
Thus far, we’ve been sharing our work and opening it up to criticism on Going Global, and we’ll continue to to do this. As the project advances, we can also spread this message with content on the service, and in a more granular way, in the copy that speaks to the user and tells the story of what we’re doing. We can also take a nod from Ben Malbon and go beta sooner than later.
Stand up, dust off, and get back on the horse
I think it’s high time we rethink the failure-success binary and instead embrace failure as a necessary step on the way to success. Once we do this, a new definition emerges: that of failure as the working-through of weaker ideas and executions, so that stronger ideas and executions can come together and be tested.
The bottom line: some element of failure is necessary to achieve success. We believe this, and we are committed to making our work reflect this.