Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. – Albert Einstein
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “failure?” Which sort of feelings does the sound of it engender within you? Not very good ones, probably.
As a society, we have been systematically wired and re-wired to abhor failure – F’s on quizzes, exams and science projects when you were younger were embarrassing, if ever you got them. It’s often a cause of shame and exclusion – I know it was for me. But amongst all of this stigmatisation we have forgotten one fundamental fact: the greatest innovations arise from a process of trial and error. Innovations are created and re-shaped in an ecosystem of what software developers call perpetual beta, where failure – variation and selection – is not perceived as a setback, but a step forward.
The benefits of failure may not be widely embedded in our culture, but they are certainly well-documented. Tim Harford’s recent book Adapt brilliantly captures the importance of variation and selection. Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist, covers the issue in both of his books, Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. Sir Ken Robinson makes the case for irrationality in education in his manifesto on creativity, Out of Our Minds. Brene Brown proposes we open ourselves up to vulnerability, a driving force in allowing ourselves to risk being wrong.
What I learned from these authors I realised I already knew, from my own experience as a child in two separate education systems (United States and Venezuela) that not only systematically suppressed my natural talents for 18 years, but also demonized failure. So I was always afraid – and that perpetual state of fear certainly impeded the kind innovation and progress that I yearned for.
So let’s go back to the very beginning. Think of yourself as a little kid: were you scared of being wrong? Chances are you probably weren’t. If you didn’t know, you had a go, right? As kids, we’re not afraid of what incrementally we grow up to loathe. This goes to the heart of creativity: in my opinion, creativity is the process of not being afraid to be wrong. Having a go until you get there, wherever that is. As Sir Ken Robinson says: we are educated out of our creative capacities – schools, as institutions, are the first in a long line to teach children not to be wrong.
Now consider politics. If you examine the political landscape, one thing is clear: there is no discourse anymore. As Brene Brown says, it is now a game of “you’re wrong, shut up.” This, Tim Harford eruditely says, comes from a deeply seated “God complex,” whereby we – all of us – tend to reject outside views on issues we hold close to our hearts. Tim Harford captured this in his TED talk recently when he said he wanted to see politicians run and win on a platform along the lines of “I know what the problems are, but I don’t have all the answers. I have a few ideas. Let’s try them. Some will work, others won’t. We’ll get there.” I suspect much of the vitriol that gets in the way of true political progress would be dissipated if we were to start running our political system in this way. In August, London was burning, the Arab world continued to fight for freedom, and capitalism is close to implosion. This is the world we live in: it’s changing. And along with it so must our minds.
The same holds for business: the Gutenberg Bible was a ruinous project. But out of its “failure,” the modern printing press was born. Twitter only recently turned profitable, but it’s often the vehicle through which the disaffected and disengaged stand up and topple undemocratic governments. Similarly, ZipCar – which only just began to turn a profit – has been forcing incumbent auto and rental companies to revolutionise their business models.
Sustainability and social enterprise both follow the same pattern. Muhammad Yunus, not exactly a name you associate with failure, created the world’s most famous development success story through trial and error. His initial lending scheme in the 70s flopped, but he learned from this and continued on to pioneer the micro-finance movement, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
This is essentially how we should approach change – seeing failures, flips and flops as steps forward rather than a debilitating hindrance. If organisations and the individuals within them can start to embrace a state of perpetual beta, who knows which kind world-changing innovations will emerge? This idea of learning from failure is not particularly novel – and I’m not writing this pretending to be Oprah – though I kinda wish I was – or some sort of self-improvement guru wanting you to rise up and see the light. What I really want to explore here is if we’re so averse to failure, we must ask ourselves: what kind of innovation is prevented or impeded by our fears?
What are we missing?
This blog first appeared on The Huffington Post