Failure. It’s a vulnerable subject. We regret the failures of our past and fear the failures in our future. Even in the present moment, we wonder—am I failing? For instance, this post that I am writing right now… Does it suck? Is my writing shit? Will anyone read this? Will anyone hit that “clap” button?
But wait. None of those questions actually have anything to do with failure. The real question is—will I hit publish?
This article was originally drafted in Evernote, years ago. A few months ago, I pasted it into Medium and moved a few words around. And today, I open it up again. I’ve been meaning to share my thoughts on failure since 2014. This article has been in “draft-state” for FOUR YEARS, people! And you better believe it’s not the only article sitting in limbo. I have a backlog of dozens of un-published ideas. I don’t want to work hard on something and then no one read it. Or for people to think it’s dumb or wrong or that I am a bad writer.
But here’s the thing. If no one likes this article, it is NOT a failure. It’s just practice. The real failure is never hitting publish.
“It’s only practice if you hit publish.” — Amy Schmittauer Landino
Make Lots of Crappy Pots
Derek Sivers posted a video on YouTube in 2011 called Why You Need to Fail (a must-watch, but stay with me here. I’ll link to it again at the end of this post). He tells a story about a ceramics teacher. At the beginning of the semester, the teacher divides his class into two groups. One group is told they will be graded on the quantity of pots they produce. At the end of the semester, all these pots will be weighed—literally. The heavier the pile of pots, the higher the grade. Conversely, the other group will be graded on the quality of a single pot that they turn in at the end of the semester. Guess which group ended up with more beautiful pots? The group graded on quantity.
This group didn’t see a collapsed pot as a failure. In fact, a collapsed pot was actually a kind of success—add it to the growing pile of clay! But the latter group, the group graded on the quality of a single perfect pot? Doomed. Think about the pressure those students must have put on themselves every time they sat down at the wheel! And perhaps even more detrimental: can you imagine how easy it would be to skip class if you only had to turn in a single pot?
Crappy pots (and posts) are NOT failures
This blanket term “failure” is not working for us. We need a better way to talk about the things that we produce that don’t go viral and might even feel like a massive waste of time, money, and effort.
What would you call all the fallen pots of the first group of students? Those ugly lumps of clay were stepping stones: to a good grade, to a new set of skills, and to gallery-quality pots by the end of the semester. They shouldn’t be labeled failures! The true failures were produced by the second group — every time they didn’t make it to the studio. Every time they froze-up faced with the expectation of perfection.
“I’d rather regret something I did than something I didn’t do.” —Butthole Surfers (and my yearbook senior quote)
The big cosmic twist: real failure is comfortable, while perceived failure is painful.
Real failure (failures of inaction) are dangerously hard to recognize, because they do not feel like failures as they are happening. They actually feel pretty comfortable. They feel like watching TV. They feel like happy hour. They feel like skipping class to go rollerskating. Don’t get me wrong, all of these things are wonderful…but if too many string together at the expense of acting on our goals, then they begin to equate to failure. But it might take a decade of hindsight to recognize that.
In contrast, perceived failures (growing pains) usually feel like shit as they are happening. They are the frustration of collapsed pot after collapsed pot. They the humiliation of a bombed stand-up comedy routine. They are the rejection letters from hundreds of publishers. They are the Medium posts with only 2 sad claps. These “failures” are acute and painful, but they help us get better. But it might take a decade of hindsight to recognize that.
For example, I started my UX consultancy three times before it became a viable career path. The first two times (and these first year of the third) hurt like hell. My clients, when I could get them, paid me peanuts. My savings drained away. I was racked with “impostor syndrome.” In 2010 and again in 2011, I’d have to get back on LinkedIn with my tail between my legs, and look for a “real job.” Both times, my attempts at doing UX on my own terms felt like heartbreaking failures. But “Uproot Studio” and “360Design” were not failures. They were experiments that helped me finally create Rewired, my amazing employer of almost five years.
Reclassifying our Failures and our “failures”
Our messy, amateur pots, posts, and products that we bring into the world (and get feedback on)—these lead to growth…and if we keep going, success. So, let’s stop calling them failures! When we do, we generate fear and perfectionism, which can cause us to quit before we start.
As we are creating, we can benefit from labeling everything we work on as simply “experiments.” If that thing actually does happily succeed in serving its intended purpose, then we can move on to call it something more concrete. If we are working on experiments instead of “art/books/apps/products*” we can move forward without fear. Experiments are allowed to turn out unexpectedly.
(*FINE PRINT: There’s a whole other story about launching products that make a certain promise to group of users about functionality, privacy, or safely. You need to make sure that you are framing and communicating your “thing” as an experiment until it does actually deliver on those promises.)
So, my call to action is to rethink failure. What are your insidious, hidden Failures with a capital F…the failures caused by inaction? Identify them and turn them into experiments. It’s all practice.
Now go watch Why You Need to Fail. And let me know in the comments: do you have a better words for for failures-of-inaction and growing pains or experiments?