Over at Harvard Business Review Jeff Stibel writes about embracing failure. His office is home to a “failure wall” where employees are encouraged to: “(1) describe a time when you failed, (2) state what you learned, and (3) sign your name.” He concludes by saying: “If we hadn’t hired people who cherish failures, my entries on the failure wall would be very lonely. Often when interviewing, I poke around and see if I can get the candidate to acknowledge a failure.”
Kudos to Stibel for being several shades more enlightened than most anxiety-ridden American execs but I am puzzled by his persistant use of the word “failure.” Stibel got the failure-wall ball rolling by admitting to his “most memorable (and humbling) failures.” So these so-called “failures” were essential. Without them there would have been no wall. No learning, no growth, no progress.
If you take the long view, all life on earth is the product of failure. What, after all, is evolution but a series of failures? The aim of sexual reproduction is to create a faithful, functional replica. Nothing changes. Evolution happens when sexual reproduction fails, when a gene splices in the wrong place, when a burst of hormones creates a novel set of characteristics. Would you rather be a successful swamp creature than the walking, talking, cognating product of several hundred million years of nature fucking it up? I wouldn’t.
It isn’t just self-defeating to dwell on failure, it’s presumptutious. What do people really mean when they talk about failure? In a work context “failing” to make a sale, get a promotion, or get the numbers in that report aligned in a certain column simply means that a task or event did not play out according to one’s preconceived notion. Choosing to define that as failure privileges the individual’s view as objective reality. If I apply for a job and the role is offered to someone else so I say “I failed” (or, if I feel snubbed: “they failed”) I assume my perspective is the only one that matters; that the stars must align for me. What an arrogant nonsense!
An artist once told me, sincere as anything: “I’ve never, ever failed.” This, in the course of a conversation where he talked about selling LSD to his classmates, getting arrested for making a bomb threat, contemplating suicide, and going bankrupt at least twice. At the time, I thought he was a little crazy. Now, I understand what he was getting at: it’s only “failure” if you fail to learn. And it is crucial to understand that the lessons aren’t always obvious. One of my long-standing professional regrets was that I “failed” to ever write a feature for Q. If I had “succeeded” I would have likely spent the last five years in an office in central London instead of living in Ibiza and Mexico, travelling in Europe, driving across the western United States, getting a Master’s degree, learning Spanish and working at everything from production editing to project management.
That’s the problem with taking the word “failure” seriously: our definition is limited by our imagination, which is puny. “The universe is wider than our views of it,” Thoreau noted. We waste our time and work ourselves into frenzies over “failure” but the truth of it is we rarely, if ever, know enough to say what is, or isn’t, for the greatest good in the long-term. When it comes to work, we should jettison the notion of “failure” and replace it with something useful like “evolution.”