On Failure

I attended ISAM 2017 recently and was reminded, forcefully, of the maker community’s attitude to failure: It’s not just okay, it’s required. “Fail early, fail often”, “failure is an opportunity”, “failure is only failure if you don’t learn from it”, that sort of thing. All those statements rest, to a greater or lesser degree, on the foundation of a central truth: You can’t let fear of failure keep you from trying.

That central truth is foundational to the experience of higher education as well. All education, particularly at the college and university  level, relies heavily on a spirit of uninhibited inquiry. (I realize that I’m idealizing here…work with me.) Part of “uninhibited inquiry” is the freedom and willingness to pursue avenues of research that go nowhere, to ask questions that can’t be answered. Again, in this environment failure is a data point, not a brick wall (here you may assume I’ve quoted Edison on 10,000 nonfunctional light bulbs).

There’s something in all this that gets overlooked sometimes, though, and all the focus on the “okayness” of failing drives me to highlight it.

Yes, failure is okay. Yes, you should expect to fail (especially in a learning environment). Yes to all that. Yet underlying all that “yes” is a bedrock layer of “however”. Yes, failure is okay. However, you should not waste time replicating someone else’s failure (unless that’s your specific intent). Yes, you should expect to fail. However, you save yourself a great deal of headache, heartache, and just plain time by performing due diligence. Yes, failure is a chance to learn. However, you should still see  where others have failed before you.

Nobody would think Edison nearly so pithy or wise if he’d spent years replicating previous failed attempts to make the light bulb. We learn not only from our own failure, but from the failure of others (and there’s where maker culture’s emphasis on sharing is so critical). Ideally, we don’t start a project blind, but with educated guesses about what is likely to succeed.

Scale matters, too. It’s one thing to rush willy-nilly into a project build that collapses and takes $100 worth of minor parts with it. It’s quite another to invest several thousand or tens of thousands of dollars in a small business that fails because you didn’t do your homework. And, of course, it’s yet another thing to architect an enterprise-level project that fails for reasons you should’ve seen coming. As the risks and consequences of failure scale, so does the responsibility to prepare.

None of this is to say that you can’t succeed where others have failed, just that you should know why and how they failed before you set out. Never fear failure, but recognize that the best bulwark against it is adequate preparation.

(Image by Gratisography via Pexels.)

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