Failure - it's less fun than you think

Who has done the huge PR job on failure?  Failure used to have such a bad rep in business but now it’s a badge of honour to have half a dozen sizeable failures under your belt before you’re thirty.

A stream of pro-failure books, articles and podcasts have popped up, just in the few weeks I’ve been mulling over this piece. But maybe that’s just observation bias – a quick check on Google Trends shows that global searches on failure have stayed about the same over the past five years.

Still, you know you’re in trouble when your bank starts giving you advice on how to fail with flare.

I reckon most of these new fail merchants have never had a single decent fail in their life.

From personal experience, especially on the romance front, I can tell you that there is absolutely no fun at all in ‘failing fast’. Anyone who tries to tell you different is a crook trying to sell you a book.

Granted, some of the voices extolling failure seem to know their stuff. Like the chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University who visited Auckland recently. 

Professor Stuart Firestein told a full house at Auckland Uni that failure is an essential building block of science. Cryptically, he describes failure as the art of “looking for a black cat in a dark room, when there is no cat.”

The point is that you’re never going to find the cat, but by the time you’ve bumped into and broken everything in the room, you’ve found out a fair bit about your world.

He also makes a fascinating point about sharks, lions and killer whales. He says, on average, these apex predators only strike it lucky in seven out of every 100 times they lunge at their prey.

If sharks fail 93% of the time, what chance is there for the rest of us?  YouTube channel, ‘Fail Army’ has built a business out of it.  Powered by an endearing tagline, ‘Failure is the only option’ they boast over 11.3 million subscribers who feed on a daily diet of skateboard crashes and icy skids.

Long before the world wide web was even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, I had a couple of ‘epic fails’ of my own.  When I was 12, I chopped a golf ball with an axe just to see what happens. Nothing at all happened for the first 4 chops and on the fifth one, it exploded in my eyes with toxic sludge.

At age 18, I thought it would be cool to ride a bike among my Dutch cousins ice skating on a frozen canal.  The side of my face hit the ice so hard and so fast, my brain was still back at finding the pedal.

If you define an expert as “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field,” (Niels Bohr) - then I will be first in line when Disney makes, ‘Dutch cyclists on ice.’

A common theme in the literature is that the seeds of failure are there from the outset. 

As Dietrich Dorner puts it, “Failure does not strike like a bolt from the blue; it develops according to its own logic. When we watch individuals try to solve problems, we will see that complicated situations seem to elicit habits of thought that set failure in motion from the beginning.”  

[From the The Logic of Failure, cited in the Guy Lawson’s War Dogs, page 234].

The poster child for this ‘achilles heel’ view of failure is the Space Shuttle Challenger which exploded 73 seconds into the flight, with the loss of seven lives. It was subsequently found to be doomed from the outset because of an O-ring which was not designed for cold conditions.  Tragic design fail.

Here in New Zealand we have a cultural code which makes it a bit more acceptable to try and to fail. 

Just ‘give it a whirl’ we say, using an expression that dates back to the early days when we started planes and tractors with a crank handle, never knowing if the damn thing was going to start or not.

This casual amateurism has served us well in everything from the invention of the rotary cowshed to the kindling cracker. For nostalgia’s sake, it also plays extremely well in this classic Split Enz song.

It is hard to change the habit of a life-time. I was brought up to fail slow, painfully and in denial where as current best practice is to fail fast, front foot failure and move on as quick as you can.

I blame Professor Firestein’s black cat.  Any way you tackle it, failure is less fun than you think.