Important Failures

I really like attending conference talks on how people screwed up. Not just to laugh at their mistakes, but to learn from them. It’s important to fail, and so many people are afraid of admitting it, for various reasons. Thing is, if they failed at something awesome– a new gaming console, a cure for cancer, a self-cleaning apartment robot, learning Tlingit– you end up respecting them. If it’s a stupid mistake, yeah, that’s not that interesting.

1. What did you fail *at*. Was it a worthwhile, ambitious, interesting, valuable goal? Did you expect a certain outcome and get another? Was it unexpected? Was it worth the doing?

2. Interesting people fail a lot. For example: Abraham Lincoln, had quite a rocky life and career. Do I want to sit next to the skyrocket-to-the-top success, or the one who endured struggle and challenge after challenge? It’s not just that I’m a blind lover of the underdog, but find it more interesting when someone can speak intelligently as to how they got where they are.

3. From that last point, why is someone who has failed a lot more interesting? It’s the magic of:

an important/ambitious/boundary-risking task + an attempt (sucess or failure) = interesting lesson

Easy success? Not a lot learned. Safe success? Also rather boring. “We kept selling the gizmos that were already selling well!” Not as good a story, nor as useful, as, “We tried digital cameras but they were too expensive (our users said). Next time, we’re making them from cheaper parts/less features, and lower price.” A lot more interesting.

Work Isn’t Play

This is true, and one of my pet-peeve buzzwords in this industry is “play.” I had a teacher who called coding “play” and while I know what she means, it’s largely not “play” to write test scripts. Writing “f**k you” over and over again recursively on your screen (as I saw a teen do in a Ruby class) is, though, play. And funny. She didn’t innovate, but let her doodle around some more for a few days/months, and who knows.

What we get from playing, though, (reference: Jane McGonigal’s talk on gaming) is that, obviously, we’re goofing around. We’re having fun. We’re experimenting, being creative, testing boundaries, all great ingredients for innovation. Still, we need safe parameters, lack of repurcussions, etc. Interesting that when we were kids playing on the playground, I personally remember falling *a lot*. But I didn’t think “I should never play again on the jungle gym again,” I simply went out there the next day, with bruises fresh and callouses, and climbed up a different way, or held on longer, or something.

Failing Safely

Similar to anything, you can fail a bit more safely: fall better, cushion the blow, fail fast. Talking to a client the other day, I was like “you can fail long and painful and expensively, or fail fast.” Not that failure was imminent, but he was worried about whether the idea would be good, proofed in the market, etc. I’m a fan of course, as we all are, of failing fast. It’s a bit of an oxymoron, failing safely, because if you were attempting something safe, it’s not a very interesting failure. How you can “cushion the blow,” though:

– put metrics on everything
– lock down a time frame (fail fast)
– make sure the only variables are the ones you are testing (no new talent, no new features, etc.)