When failing isn’t awesome (or, notes on pain)

A couple of years ago, in the pre-PhD days, I was learning to mountain bike. This sport was not a natural fit for me. I have an easy propensity towards adrenalin, and rocketing down a hill at pace with trees lunging at me and lumps in the ground rearing up to try to catch my wheels was not ideal. But I dig nature, I enjoy cycling, and I wanted to give it a go.

One day, I was trying to master a particularly challenging creek crossing when my wheel landed in a hole and threw me over. Unfortunately I continued to hold onto the handlebars as I sailed over them, which meant that my landing on rocks was borne almost entirely by my chest, and I fractured my sternum. This was ok. I have worn injuries before (and no doubt will again). The pain wasn’t that bad, and it healed within a few weeks or months. But it did hurt. And it became one major bump on a journey which led to me hanging up the mountain bike and returning almost exclusively to road cycling.

I failed a lot during my tenure as a mountain bike rider. Some of those failures led to growth. I would try going over a particular obstacle or part of the trail over and again until I got it right. But oftentimes when I did so, my body would come away battered and bruised. Continued falls left my confidence shaken. My body would tense up in anticipation of the pain, leading to further distress and ensuring that I actually failed more often. Almost daily I would push my limits, come up wanting, and have to live with the scars and pain of that experience. Some of them linger still, years on. And eventually I gave the sport away.

Failing has become something of a fetish of late. It feels that I cannot turn anywhere without someone extolling the virtues of having permission to fail. And you know what, I get it. But unless your experiences of failure are radically different to my own, it’s not something I can really imagine lining up for time and time again, permission or no. Because failure hurts.

The pain can be physical, as it so often was for me when mountain biking. It can be emotional, too. It can lodge itself at the base of your stomach and grip your intestines in a vice. Following my most significant personal failures, I have wanted to disappear; to delete myself from the pages of people’s memories and reemerge an anonymous tabula rasa. As Margery Eldredge Howell put it, “There’s dignity in suffering, nobility in pain, but failure is a salted wound that burns and burns again.”

Institutional failure also brings pain. The costs of choosing to invest in the wrong thing or of making a public misstep can be significant. Mike Edson published an interesting discussion about skunkworks and scale recently. Among the many useful observations is this one:

How we do work inside organizations, the choices we make about how to invest and cultivate the talents and energy of our colleagues and community, has a huge and direct impact on people’s lives and careers. Project failures can be instructive, sometimes, but I’ve seen people fired, disgraced, and passed over for promotion when initiatives fail. I’ve seen talented employees leave the museum industry in frustration, and I’ve seen the public good diminished when organizations squander resources and produce something small and OK when they could have delivered something solid, huge, and great.

Although we might wish that there was no sting in failure, it does have consequences. They might just be ego repercussions when, humiliated and vulnerable, you have to face colleagues or loved ones after you’ve screwed up. Or they might be bigger than that. But if what you’re trying to achieve means something, then the failure will mean something too.

In her great piece on the downside of the startup failure craze, Lydia DePillis proposes that de-stigmatising the practice of failure is “a pre-emptive psychological defense mechanism” against a startup failure boom. As we see museum culture being infused by tech culture, it is little surprise to discover a similar attitude in museums, and in many ways it is positive. Innovation does indeed require risk, and risk carries with it an almost inherent possibility of failure. Woe betide the institution that fears failure so much as to fall into a state of permanent inertia. But museums are institutions that have, always, an eye to longevity and the future, and failure is rarely consequence-free.

I think that when people seek institutions that embrace failure, they are looking to reduce the sting, that personal pain of getting things wrong. Yet I’ve never known that pain to go away in situations that matter.

I have learned in my life to come back from my failures. I will never forget my first big fail, nor many of the subsequent missteps. Each has taught me something. But they have also hurt. Though the pain has dulled with time, I still carry it. And it is hard to face into the wind and open yourself up to criticism, to failure, to pain. It is even harder to do it when you’re already bruised and tired; when your confidence has been shaken. Or at least, it is for me.

I’d love to know about your experiences with failure, professional or otherwise. Do you agree that failure hurts? Have you had to pick yourself up again after a serious failure, and start again? How did you deal with the fallout?

11 thoughts on “When failing isn’t awesome (or, notes on pain)

  1. I totally agree, failing should not have a carte blanche! But I do think that guided failing (ie: moving slowly over rocks and being ready to fall) is really different from a full-throttle fail, like going over your handlebars at high speed. I think most would agree that the first is a learning process while the second is just a disaster. Maybe it has to do with expectations of learning. Not all fails are created equal!

  2. Bravo Suse. This is a really timely post, and hitting an issue that’s disconcerted me for sometime. Evolution is important, from an institutional perspective, a project perspective, and in terms of professional growth. I do believe that borrowing the iterative, agile design culture from software development has helped us cut through bureaucracy and complacency. Talking about our failures, as in last year’s MW, can help us build better. Failure and rapid iteration works well for certain components of museum web development.

    But for others? How willing are institutions to “fail” at an exhibit that took 4 years to develop? To allow staff to develop a programming series that “fails”? Will that staff member be supported in the effort to try again after that failure?

    As much as we want innovation to be part of our culture, museums are not software companies. Our product timelines are longer, our goal is not purely a commercial one, and we are not prepared to lay off staff, close this museum, and move on to start a new museum as is the practice of tech start-ups.

    I think that framing the terms in this case hurts rather than helps us in the larger museum field, especially in science institutions. Board members and senior staff may not be accustomed to the “fail faster, fail better” language, and instead we need to talk about evolution, growth, critical reflection.

    Critical reflection is key. In all the interviews we did at ILI, we always asked applicants to reflect back on the work they’d present and tell us how, with the greater wisdom of time, how they would have done it differently. If they couldn’t see how they would have done it differently, we didn’t hire them, as we want to be able to pull it apart and do it better next time.

    That’s growth, not failure.

  3. Hi Susie, we are just going through a review of the big “priorities” that our museum has to meet. Various aspects of our culture come up in that, and how to use “failure” is significantly present, but much more in the design thinking mould. An important catchphrase for us is “innovation and agility”, and at the core of that and design thinking is a fail fast, fail early, fail cheaply and LEARN. There can be no innovation without failure. I guess I disagree here a bit with katehg4 in that we are a large old museum of nature and culture (or more accurately, people and a changing world) and we do research. But even in research rapid testing of hypothoses is better than a long term study that ends up completely wrong.
    The essence to me is to fail on a small scale frequently, and at least partly by doing that, avoid the really big stuff ups. There is no acceptable way that a museum should work for four years to develop a show that goes horribly wrong (no-one comes; budget blow out;).
    I really think we need to learn from key aspects of tech start ups, but we arent them. But there are many museums now going down the (financial) tubes because they werent innovative and agile. We could all do with a culture that welcomes small useful interesting inexpensive colourful failures, quite often. Great way to avoid the big stuff ups…

  4. “But for others? How willing are institutions to “fail” at an exhibit that took 4 years to develop? To allow staff to develop a programming series that “fails”? Will that staff member be supported in the effort to try again after that failure?”

    So the whole fail fast mantra means you wouldn’t get to fail after 4 years. You would test assumptions during all of those 4 years so that by the time the exhibit ‘launched’ your chances of success would be a lot higher than without any of the small failures.

    The whole fail mantra is about testing what you are doing and learning from those failed tests to improve what you do.

    1. I’m a museum evaluator, so I whole-heartedly believe in testing assumptions over time, and in rapid iterating until you get a final product. That said, I still hold that the culture and rhetoric of “failure” as part of innovation translates unevenly within the rest of the museum field, especially to funders.

      1. You have a good point. The rhetoric of “failure” arose as a direct reaction to the conservative decision-making processes that are common in business and finance and that more-or-less ruled the business world during the 80s and 90s (and still do to a certain extent today). It was a direct challenge to the culture of predictive analysis and risk-assessment that drove businesses and investors to avoid and prevent disruptive change rather than embrace it. It was literally intended to shock people into reevaluating their judgement processes. “Failure’s not so bad if it gets you closer to monumental success.” This was the hyperbolic message used to make poster children of innovation out of people like James Dyson and companies like Apple and IDEO.

        We often compare ourselves to business institutions when it’s convenient to do so, but we have to remember our differences as well. Maybe the rhetoric of “failure” isn’t universally useful, or perhaps it has outlived its usefulness. The idea of iterative development and disruptive change is more widely accepted now than it was when all this “failure” talk started. Perhaps it’s time to decouple the core message from the rhetorical package that has been so far used to deliver it.

      2. Matt, I absolutely think it is time to decouple of core message from the rhetorical package. As we can even see in this discussion, failure has many possible interpretations from not-succeeding all the way through to colossal failure, collapse etc. And that kind of failure does not necessarily move you closer to monumental success. So I think we need to shift the way we talk about the concept further, and get away from the kind of fetishising of failure that has been happening, or at least to acknowledge further that the pain of failure, the downsides are very real, even as there can be benefits.

  5. As always thank you Suse and thank you Glen for summing up the rational middle. Lets not lose ourselves in arguments of the extreme; there is a world of difference between a small failure vs. an epic failure. For me there are two things going on here:

    First of all we have to define ‘failure’ … it really is contextual, isn’t it? And we have to be willing to redefine it. For example, we recently hosted an exhibit produced by an outside designer and … well to be blunt … it was a disgrace. It was misrepresented, components kept breaking down, on and on. But it was that or an empty gallery … we had to open it. Staff cringed. The public loved it … well most of them. Especially kids who couldn’t get enough of it. So, perhaps in the end it was a success, I still cant tell. It sure was a test and a learning curve.

    The second is fear … or shall I say over coming fear. (Disclaimer here: anyone who knows me, or anything I’ve written or presented knows I blather on about letting go of fear, so, sorry) Our industry in particular is sometimes paralysed by fear masquerading as ‘risk aversion’ (even worse for those of us who run a council owned facility) and ‘authoritative standards’. Perhaps it is our fear of letting go … when we think we are propelled into disaster, instead of holding onto the handlebars, perhaps we should let go? After all, a little pain never hurt anyone. Right?

    Perhaps, as Glen hints at, rather than discussing ‘willingness to fail’ we should be discussing ‘willingness to test-learn-tweak, test-learn-tweak, test-learn-tweak ok now lets launch’? I support my staff 100% because of this. Because we work through projects, refine ideas and if we are not met with success, we move on and endeavour not to make the same mistake again. How does the saying go: “Never say you have failed until you have reached your last attempt and never say it’s your last attempt until you have succeeded.” Just a thought.

    1. Ah! You responded just as I was finishing off my own comment below. I agree, the definition of failure here is absolutely a factor in these discussions, as is the context. So maybe we need a different language for this, or a more nuanced one at least? On the HBR blog, there’s a nice piece proposing that we should be fetishising learning, not failure. http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/03/failure_is_failure.html This seems to be what you, Glen, and Frank are speaking to.

      On the fear question, I wonder whether you ever think there are good reasons for fear, Padraic? Is your council a self-insurer (I think some within Oz are)? If it is, then its risk aversion likely has strong financial motivations that might not otherwise be there. That is not to say the fear should be allowed to dictate policy, but it can be hard to overcome, I guess.

  6. Yep, I think I’m with Kate on this one. I am not even sure that I think that not succeeding (in the case of trial/error/iteration) is actually the same as failing. I often come up on dead-ends within my PhD research, but I don’t think I’ve failed. I just found a direction that didn’t work. It’s not just that the cost is small (although the learning opportunities can be large), it’s that I was seeking to learn *what happens if?*.

    Here’s a question. If an organisation (or individual) seeks to fail fast and fail often in order to prevent the big failures, does that mean it (he/she) also rarely bets the house on something really significant? The quote I refer to above from Mike Edson lends itself to interpretation along those lines, “I’ve seen the public good diminished when organizations squander resources and produce something small and OK when they could have delivered something solid, huge, and great.”

  7. This issue is absolutely HUGE. As a fellow mountain bike rider, during my first runs, I gauged success by if I had a complete ride without wrecking bad – bad meaning a bruise or needing to get out a tool to straighten the handlebars or seat, etc. etc. When I got to the point of not focusing on whether I fell, I could focus on riding. Quite a bit difference.

    I am quite concerned when working particularly with graduate students who feel that anything less than an A or hitting the concept right the first time are failures. What I enjoy so much is that in working with a diverse team, folks come at things from so many different angles that ultimately the product is more robust. No one person has all the answers and notions to the contrary are doomed to perpetual frustration.

    I have taken to keeping two papers in my desk drawer at work for occasional impromptu demonstrations. One is the first paper I ever turned in in my PhD program for a course in Anthropological Research Design. The paper came back with so much red ink on it I was mortified. The professor was also my academic advisor. All of my self doubt about being the first person in my family to ever go to college came to the fore. But I was also impressed that what I was missing was critically important. Gradually my papers had less red ink, but I remained concerned about the final exam. I worked extremely hard for the rest of semester on this course. The day of the final exam came. I walked out of the exam thinking it was very easy. My peers came out of the exam moaning about how tough it was. Again, I thought I was missing something, and joined in with the chorus, also complaining how tough it was. The day came when we got the exam books back. The instructor had written the grade on the front. His handwriting was horrible but it looked like a 60%. I started paging through the blue book and realized that in fact I received full credit on all of the answers and my grade was a 100%. The next closest grade in the class was an 82%. I blew the curve. So this exam is the second paper I keep in my desk.

    I am forever grateful to the Professor, R. Barry Lewis, those years ago who spent the time spilling all of that ink on the first paper, so that I could do better by the time of the final exam. Without question, Anthropological Research Design was the most important course I have ever taken during my college career.

    I use these two papers to show students who are concerned when their first efforts are critiqued. I did not go from lots of red ink on paper 1 to a 100% on the final exam because I am particularly smart. I made the transition because I had a professor who was able to take my failure, guide me toward a better understanding, if I chose to follow the path – which I did. What I also enjoy is that he always allowed his advisees the freedom to make their own decisions, congratulate them on their successes and offer suggestions and guidance when a Plan B was in order.

    I am absolutely convinced that failure, or less than is critically important. Why are we so critical of less than perfection today. I always think of that English dude named Hook or Cook who discovered red blood cells. We don’t get down on him because he did not also discover mitochondrial dna. It’s all a process.

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