You Say Failure, I Say Evolution

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.”

Free Thinking – Fighting Capitalism from Within

Posted by Cila Warncke

I just finished Peter Chapman’s excellent expose Jungle Capitalists about ruthless banana baron United Fruit Corporation which ran Central America as its private fiefdom for most of a century – casually killing off unruly workers, uncooperative heads of state, uncharted jungle and anything else that got in its way. It got me thinking about the antidote to brute free market economics. Given that we live in an anxiety-riddled, security obsessed, paranoid late-capitalist society there are limited alternatives. You can’t drop out and live off the land anymore unless you’re rich enough to buy the land in the first place, and our high-tech culture makes it difficult to live a private life. It isn’t easy to shape your own existence, given the physical, legal and ideological constraints on personal freedom. There are people, however, who take on the challenge and look for creative ways to address the ever-present imperative to pay the rent while doing something that is personally meaningful and socially beneficial. These unsung freedom fighters fuck with the system by surviving within it while doing what they want to do – and by using their skills in constructive, cooperative ways. In a perfect world, it’s what everyone would do.

This is the first instalment of what I hope will become a long series of blogs profiling individuals and businesses that operate outside the prevailing paradigm. First up, Algo Mas – a 100% Fair Trade shop in Ibiza.

Thursday evening in the tiny village of Sant Miquel and the plaza below the Iglesia is full of children, music and the scent of home baking. On the corner, door and sky-blue shutters flung open, sits Algo Mas. This small Fair Trade shop has just celebrated its second anniversary and judging by the stream of locals who stop to say hello, it is firmly cemented in the community. Italian expats Valeria Cova and Aurietta Sala run the shop, along with Blanca Llosent. Aurietta and Valeria are Italian, but have each lived in Ibiza for more than 30 years and have fond memories of the days when visiting friends meant half a day’s walk through the countryside and dinner by candlelight. They are not hippie dilettantes, however, or airy fairy idealists. Algo Mas is the product of hard work, common sense and a firm commitment to the principles of Fair Trade. Click here to continue reading