Is Failure Such a Bad Thing?


Failure almost always ends in pain and injury (either physical or psychological), but seldom ends in death.  When faced with a calamity of any proportion, my first response is always, “well, nobody died.”  Ok, a hammer fell out of a window during an installation and struck the windshield of a rare Rolls Royce on the street.  It will surely cost some money, but money can be re-earned, life NEVER gets a do-over.  If your assessment starts at the worst possible outcome and you walk it back from the edge of the abyss, every step brings encouragement.

No human endeavor goes exactly as planned although during the planning phase every effort is made to prepare for every possible contingency.  Chaos theory takes over and but for the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in the Philippines, a gust of wind causes the mechanic to drop the hammer.  Without a supercomputer and the time to calculate all possible factors, you will occasionally be surprised.

Fear of failure is paralyzing . . . the proverbial deer in headlights.  The adult condition requires you to set limits of risk that are acceptable.  Every time we walk out on the street there is a risk of something horrible happening.  By definition, you left the house to walk to the store for a container of milk which is one of the safest of things you can do, but for some random acts like a bus running a stop sign can snuff you out.  The answer is not to stay home and never go out because there are plenty of everyday risks at home as well.  The state of death is probably the only safe place, and Sister Mary Margaret has filled your head will all sorts of horrible images of how that can end up.  There is no avoiding risk and consequently failure.  The key to success is taking reasonable risks and you need to learn how to do that.

Now that we have come to understand that failure is inevitable, we need to set those thresholds of acceptable risk.  We start as very small children pushing the boundaries, testing the limits of what our parents tell us.  If they say the stove is hot, the curious mind is driven to find our exactly what hot means.  This brings us to experience.  Benjamin Franklin has perhaps put it best, “Experience is the best teacher, but a fool will learn from no other.”  I find it odd that only the first phrase of the quote is most often quoted.  The important part of it is the second half.  If you can learn from the experience of others some of the time, you can reduce your “failure education pain” to a bare minimum.

Success is the opposite of failure and as with all continua, they mark the ends of the spectrum.  You cannot know success without some failure.  Without failure, you are probably not trying hard enough.  I have had the pleasure and occasional frustration of working with perfectionists.  I find that they come in two varieties: those who continue to make improvements always moving forward toward the mythical goal of success, and the egocentric lune who spends his free time conjuring up why HE, in fact, did not fail.  This last one is very frustrating because they never get better.  They are always trying to redefine the past.  Failure requires learning from it, setting or revising thresholds, and moving on.  The ego that cannot accept failure as a teaching tool, doesn’t go too far down the road to success.

The more ambitious the mission you set out on, the more complex, and the more gremlins that line the path.  2Fold™ is the most carefully planned product development I have ever been involved with in my 45-year professional career, but even with two years of preparation, there are still surprises every day.  I never think about quitting; this is too much fun.  I’ll be back in the testing lab for the fourth-time next week to solve a nagging problem . . . a failure.  Oh well, no one died.


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