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

Posted on January 23, 2013


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?