Not trying or putting forth your best effort is.
Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.
― Robert F. Kennedy
Last week I attended the ASME Verification and Validation Symposium as I have for the last five years. One of the keynote talks ended with a discussion of the context of results in V&V. It used the following labels for an axis: Success (good) and Failure (bad). I took issue with it, and made a fairly controversial statement. Failure is not negative or bad, and we should not keep referring to it as being negative. I might even go so far as to suggest that we actually encourage failure, or at the very least celebrate it because failure also implies your trying. I would be much happier if the scale was related to effort and excellence of work. The greatest sin is not failing; it is not trying.
Keep trying; success is hard won through much failure.
― Ken Poirot
It is actually worse than simply being a problem that the best effort isn’t put forth, lack of acceptance of failure inhibits success. The outright acceptance of failure as a viable outcome of work is necessary for the sort of success one can have pride in. If nothing is risked enough to potentially fail than nothing can be achieved. Today we have accepted the absence of failure as being the tell tale sign of success. It is not. This connection is desperately unhealthy and leads to a diminishing return on effort. Potential failure while an unpleasant prospect is absolutely necessary for achievement. As such the failures when best effort is put forth should be celebrated and lauded whenever possible and encouraged. Instead we have a culture that crucifies those who fail with regard for the effort on excellence of the work going into it.
Right now we are suffering in many endeavors from deep unremitting fear of failure. The outright fear of failing and the consequences of that failure are resulting in many efforts reducing their aggressiveness in attacking their goals. We reset our goals downward to avoid any possibility of being regarded as failing. The result is an extensive reduction in achievement. We achieve less because we are so afraid of failing at anything. This is resulting is the destruction of careers, and the squandering of vast sums of money. We are committing to mediocre work that is guaranteed of “success” rather than attempting excellent work that could fail.
A person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new
― Albert Einstein
We have not recognized the extent to which failure energizes our ability to learn, and bootstrap ourselves to a greater level of achievement. Failure is perhaps the greatest means to teach us powerful lessons. Failure is a means to define our limits of understanding and knowledge. Failure is the fuel for discovery. Where we fail, we have work that needs to be done. We have mystery and challenge. Without failure we lose discovery, mystery, challenge and understanding. Our knowledge becomes stagnant and we cease learning. We should be embracing failure because failure leads to growth and achievement.
Instead today we recoil and run from failure. Failure has become such a massive black mark professionally that people simply will not associate themselves with something that isn’t a sure thing. The problem is that sure things aren’t research they are developed science and technology. If one is engaged in research, we do not have certain results. The promise of discovery is also tinged with the possibility of failure. Without the possibility of failure, discovery is not possible. Without an outright tolerance for a failed result or idea, the discovery of something new and wonderful cannot be had. At a personal level the ability to learn, develop and master knowledge is driven by failure. The greatest and most compelling lessons in life are all driven by failures. With a failure you learn a lesson that sticks with you, and your learning sticks.
Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often.
― Steven Kotler
It is the ability to tolerate ambiguity in results that leads to much of the management response. Management is based on assuring results and defining success. Our modern management culture seems to be incapable of tolerating the prospect of failure. Of course the differences in failure are not readily supported by our systems today. There is a difference between an earnest effort that still fails and an incompetent effort that fails. One should be supported and celebrated and the other is the definition of unsuccessful. We have lost the capacity to tolerate these subtleties. All failure is viewed as the same and management is intolerant. They require results that can be predicted and failure undermines this central tenant of management.
The end result of all of this failure avoidance is a generically misplaced sense of what constitutes achievement. More deeply we are losing the capacity to fully understand how to structure work so that things of consequence may be achieved. In the process we are wasting money, careers and lives in the pursuit of hollowed out victories. The lack of failure is now celebrated even though the level of success and achievement is a mere shadow of the sorts of success we saw a mere generation ago. We have become so completely under the spell of avoidance of scandal that we shy away from doing anything bold or visionary.
We live in an age where the system cannot tolerate a single bad event (e.g., failure whether it is an engineered system, or a security system,…). In the real World failures are utterly and completely unavoidable. There is a price to be paid for reductions of bad events and one can never have an absolute guarantee. The cost of reducing the probability of bad events escalates rather dramatically as you look to reduce the tail probabilities beyond a certain point. Things like the mass media and demagoguery by politicians takes any bad event and stokes fears using the public’s response as a tool for their own power and purposes. We are shamelessly manipulated to be terrified of things that have always been one-off minor risks to our lives. Our legal system does its dead level best to amp all of this fearful behavior for their own selfish interests of siphoning as much money as possible from whoever has the misfortune of tapping into the tails of extreme events.
In the area of security, the lack of tolerance for bad events is immense. More than this, the pervasive security apparatus produces a side effect that greatly empowers things like terrorism. Terror’s greatest weapon is not high explosives, but fear and we go out of our way to do terrorists jobs for them. Instead of tamping down fears our government and politicians go out of their way to scare the shit out of the public. This allows them to gain power and fund more activities to answer the security concerns of the scared shitless public. The best way to get rid of terror is to stop getting scared. The greatest weapon against terror is bravery, not bombs. A fearless public cannot be terrorized.
The end result of all of this risk intolerance is a lack of achievement as individuals, organizations, or the society itself. Without the acceptance of failure, we relegate ourselves to a complete lack of achievement. Without the ability to risk greatly we lack the ability to achieve greatly. Risk, danger and failure all improve our lives in every respect. The dial is too turned away from accepting risk to allow us to be part of progress. All of us will live poorer lives with less knowledge, achievement and experience because of the attitudes that exist today. The deeper issue is that the lack of appetite for obvious risks and failure actually kicks the door open for even greater risks and more massive failures in the long run. These sorts of outcomes may already be upon us in terms of massive opportunity cost. Terrorism is something that has cost our society vast sums of money and undermined the full breadth of society. We should have had astronauts on Mars already, yet the reality of this is decades away, so our societal achievement is actually deeply pathetic. The gap between “what could be” and “what is” has grown into a yawning chasm. Somebody needs to lead with bravery and pragmatically take the leap over the edge to fill it.
We have nothing to fear but fear itself.
– Franklin D. Roosevelt.