Failure is Not Black & White, but Shades of Gray
An unusual topic for the beginning of the year: FAILURE. Yes, failure. The New Year is the time to talk about success and new beginnings, so you might be asking whether or not this is the best time to talk about this. Well, it’s a little hard to define success without experiencing failure, and since the New Year brings new beginnings, now is absolutely the time to talk about failure. So, for the beginning of 2016, I would like to reflect on my thoughts of failure and why it’s so important.
This is something you probably don’t want to hear, or like hearing: you’re going to fail. A LOT. And guess what: and that’s okay. We have to fail, because that is often how we learn. Think back to when you were growing up. How often did you ever get it on the first try? Or mastered a skill so quickly that you never made a mistake? I’m going to guess the answer to the first question is ‘hardly ever’ and the answer to the second question is ‘never.’ And yet, most of us view failure in such a negative light. We view failure & success as a black & white paradigm – one is bad (failure), one is good (success). Failure is the opposite of success, therefore failure is bad, and we should avoid failure altogether.
And yet, as Stephen Wright once said, “Sometimes when you lose, you win. Like when you play musical electric chairs.”
The truth is, failure, as well as success, should really be viewed in shades of gray. Often there are lessons to be learned when we fail, and when we take those lessons, reflect on them, learn from them, and move on, we can increase our chances of success later. In many respects, if we learn something from our failures – whether that is something to implement later, or to not replicate instead – then that is technically a success. Those lessons can be the tools and experience we add to our personal toolboxes for use down the road. In other instances, it’s about learning what we SHOULDN’T do, versus what we SHOULD do. Maybe you don’t know the right path to take yet based on those experiences, but you know with certainty it is not THIS one. Legend has it that when Thomas Edison was working on the light bulb, his repeat failures to find the right filament were summarized as “I’ve simply found one more way that doesn’t work.” Through this lens, failures are abject lessons that help us in life to lift the veil of ignorance.
However, there is also the misunderstanding that we MUST fail, and that the faster I fail, the faster I can succeed. Since the dotcom era, tech startups have been known for embracing a culture of what’s referred to as ‘failure porn.’ This can literally be described as loving the idea of ‘fail fast & fail often,’ a variant on what we see in Lean Manufacturing, but almost like it is desired more than success. Our great tech giants have failed and failed often, so therefore in order to emulate them, I should fail faster because that will get to their level faster, right? Get the failure out of the way quickly, and enjoy success now! Well, not exactly. When the tech giants failed, they tried again because they learned something. Don’t do THIS instead, or try THAT differently. Take THIS approach versus THAT strategy, etc. The common denominators here are that failure is more shades of gray than black & white, and that by learning from your failures, you can achieve success.
Failure sometimes rears its ugly head when we have done nothing wrong. How often does it happen where we do EVERYTHING right, and yet we still fail? Does that mean that all of our work was or nothing? That SOMETHING had to go wrong along the way? Not exactly. Yes, sometimes failure is a result of incompetence or negligence, but how often is that the case? How many failures in the world truly fall into this category? Sometimes we follow instructions to the letter, or did everything in our power, and it just doesn’t happen. The best we can hope for after that is to learn something from it, and then move on. Again, shades of gray.
Unfortunately, in the government world, there is an ingrained fear of failure. Failure means a bad evaluation. Failure means slow promotion. Failure means bad reputation or low award fee. And yet, you mean to tell me that those who achieved what many would define as ‘success’ never failed? I find that very hard to believe. In fact, with no knowledge of it whatsoever, I will guess they failed many times. Why? Because they’re human, and so are we. If you always succeed, then in a matter of speaking, you’ve failed. To fail, and learn from it, means to succeed. Once again, shades of gray.
In order to learn success, you must learn to fail. Failure teaches empathy, which helps us to pick ourselves up, sympathize with those who have also walked our path, and support those who will walk in later. It also teaches us lessons we might not have gotten elsewhere. For example, how else would you have known a process or strategy wouldn’t work until you’ve done it? One needs look no further than NASA’s rocket program of the 1950s. Rockets are incredibly complex machines that require thousands of moving parts to function perfectly, and the years leading to Alan Shepard’s 1961 spaceflight were marked with far more rockets exploding than making it into space. Since we were taking our first steps into space, we had much to learn and get right before we succeeded. In fact, our first satellite in space was supposed to be Vanguard 1 in November 1957, which didn’t get more than three feet off the ground before falling back to the launch pad and exploding. Having been only one month after Sputnik went up, that failure stung heavily, even across the ocean. Years later, it was noted that Sergei Korolev, the head of the Soviet rocket program at the time (and responsible for Sputnik), expressed genuine sadness when he learned of Vanguard’s failure because he’s been there before. While a high-ranking Communist, he was also a scientist at heart, and to see that kind of failure in view of the watchful eyes of the world gave him momentary pause, reminding him of the then-unknown Soviet rocket failures leading to Sputnik. However, in both cases, lessons were learned. The Americans better understood the true thrust requirements at liftoff, and even learned how to improve launch pad safety. At the same time, the government realized the Army’s rocket program was much more advanced than Vanguard (you can thank Werner von Braun for that), and within three months, Explorer 1, America’s first satellite, was orbiting the Earth. Even during the great Space Race, there was empathy from our competitor, and lessons learned from failure got us flying again. It is crucial that in each failure, we learn something from it, so that victory tastes so much better in the end.
So just try, and when you fail, the worst that can happen is: you learn something. But it’s important to know the degrees of failure, and that most failure you encounter is more shades of gray than a black & white good or bad scenario. Did you fail because you forgot to do something? Did you fail because you didn’t know something? Or did you fail because the environment wouldn’t let you succeed, even after you’ve done everything right? It’s important to learn the lessons from failure, and pick yourself back up and move on. Failing without learning is failing in vain, and since time is our most precious non-renewable commodity, this represents a one-two punch of wasted effort. So while we shouldn’t aim to fail, we shouldn’t dwell on it either. Accept it, learn from it, and get back into the game.
As a good friend of mine once taught me, “Brother, sometimes you have to eat the humble pie.” Very true brother, very true. It only makes the victory celebration that much more savory.