the art of #fail & the importance of oops

[this post was first published on 18.sept.12 for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas blog for the Sydney Opera House]

Failure is all the rage at the moment. It has been embraced gloriously by everyone from educationalists, to intellectuals to terrible digital gurus (like me). The worst part about this adoption is that the language itself loses significance, the word loses impact, failure becomes a form of schmaltz.

For the marketing types "failing forward" are words du jour alongside, "innovation" and "digital first" when seeking to sedate a world agitated by a noisy, frantic, fantastic rush towards the future with all it's bewildering whizz bang cloud-driven gadgetry. It seems hard to see how can anyone do anything but fail faced with the armada of online opportunities, a flotilla of digital destroyers. So, perhaps the question is, can we truly succeed?

And I confess, I am a fan of failure. I rather like the idea. But not as a buzz word. I like it in practice. My best moments have come from reaching forward, aspiring to greater and better deliverables only to fall short, to quit, to lose patience or have it taken from me. Basically, failing. Being fired; not delivering; printing completely the wrong advert. That sort of thing. Real, bonafide failures.

I like to imagine that most people's career paths vaguely match the undulating meander of mild successes, gentle failures, and unplanned eventualities that I have experienced.  
According to John Lennon life is what happens when you make other plans - and funnily enough that is what happens. In childhood we call this trial and error. In business we call it emergent strategy. In marketing we call it failing forward. Basically, when you fall over you learn.

Now I work for a company with a strong Engineering culture that believes in data, and measuring, lots of testing. Testing means noticing what didn't work, what fell over, and changing it. And calling it out and sharing it widely, and making that process so normal, so everyday, that something going wrong is simply a good thing to know. That way you learn things you didn't even know you needed to learn. It's a different kind of failing, it's discovery through failure.

Within the marketing division of this engineering firm I work for a creative team.
My team get labelled as innovative; it's a funny word - to me it means exploring and experimenting - we find that the best projects don't know what they might become at the start, or what they will achieve at the end, instead they build on the learnings of disastrous experience, using happy accidents or near misses, and find things that we can't do, or cannot be done, new assumptions we have made, mistakes. For example a less-than successful plan to have musicians play for the YouTube Symphony at the Opera House (by waving a phone at a computer) eventually turned into an entire floor of physical online interactions at the Science Museum in London. Our only successes are when we adequately disguise our failures. Creative success is the collision of ideas or imagery or functions or words in a way that surprises, delights or astounds people, including yourself (or, it is appropriating genius that no one else has seen yet). Or both. Half the time our failure is the inability to execute, half the time it's in the execution. But much like the drawing of your hand, or the model of your house, or that knitting project you started, our outputs never, ever looks like it did in our head, it is never good enough.  

And then you have a choice, try again, improve, learn, fail; or stop, watch TV, give up, fail. Good fail or bad fail. Perhaps that is what success means: a failure to set sufficiently ambitious goals.

I have a friend who stayed up until 4am baking blueberry muffins, over and over, 5 times, until they were right. He didn't tell anyone. He failed furtively. He failed frequently. But his muffins were awesome.

So I'm a fan. My hairdresser continues to insist that for her failure is not an option. And to be honest, she's right, below a certain standard failure, especially in hairdressing, is not an option. But for most of us failure is the only option. Embrace it warmly.