The Failure Fetish
A fetish for failure has been sweeping the blogosphere, the Twitterverse, and the broader market for ideas for a couple of years now. It’s ridiculous, and here’s why.
Daniel Altman is Big Think's Chief Economist and an adjunct faculty member at New York University's Stern School of Business. Daniel wrote economic commentary for The Economist, The New York Times, and The International Herald Tribune before founding North Yard Economics, a non-profit consulting firm serving developing countries, in 2008. In between, he served as an economic advisor in the British government and wrote four books, most recently Outrageous Fortunes: The Twelve Surprising Trends That Will Reshape the Global Economy.
Failing is cool. Failing is great. Failing is the best thing you can do. A fetish for failure has been sweeping the blogosphere, the Twitterverse, and the broader market for ideas for a couple of years now. It’s ridiculous, and here’s why.
Thought leaders, social innovators, and TED talkers have been praising failure as an engine of learning with a zeal that borders on the evangelistic. Failure certainly can offer a lesson; when you mess something up, you often get a clue about how to do it better. Even absent a useful lesson, failure gives you one data point: your original approach didn’t work.
Failure fetishists tell you to fail fast, so that you can learn and adapt as quickly as possible. You may indeed save time by failing fast, but what about the quality of your failures? The fastest way to fail is just to throw every possible solution at a problem – a sort of brute force method. You might get a lot of information this way, but how much better will you understand the roots of the problem? Sometimes it’s worth taking time to think about the dynamics of the system rather than using rapid-fire trial-and-error.
This is especially true when each failure has a discrete cost. Imagine a platoon of soldiers trying to find the best way out of enemy territory. Failing fast would mean immediately sending soldiers in every possible direction and waiting to hear which of them made it back behind the lines. Of course, the rest would be killed or captured. In this case, a more judicious approach aimed at succeeding the first time – looking at maps, doing reconnaissance, radioing other platoons – might lead to a higher survival rate.
Now consider an advertising agency. Every time it wants to try out a new campaign, it hires a focus group. To fail fast, it would have to show dozens of iterations of its ads to these groups, learning a little bit each time. But people in focus groups get paid; if the account budget only allowed for three or four iterations, the agency would have to spend extra time trying to hit the mark – or at least get close – the first time.
Aiming to succeed the first time also helps to avoid bad habits. Imagine a concert pianist trying to learn a new piece. She could dive into the music, cruising through every passage at full tempo until she played a wrong note, then redoing those passages until she played them correctly. Yet along the way, she would create a jumble of useless and wrong muscular memories. For this reason, some of the best teachers suggest playing a new piece as slowly as needed to avoid all mistakes, then gradually increasing the tempo. Learning the piece correctly the first time builds a stronger foundation for the pianist’s interpretation of the music.
Similarly, a baseball player trying to perfect his swing could quickly try out a series of different strokes during batting practice in the pre-season. Most would fail to improve his hitting, but, as soon as one seemed to work, he could refine it with more trial-and-error. Of course, with this method he might miss another swing that was even more effective. Alternatively, he could try to succeed the first time by using simulations and expert advice to zero in on the most natural, efficient swing for his body, and then start from there. This approach would probably reduce his risk of injury, too.
Failure is a fetish and a growing fad. As with many fads, its adherents focus on benefits without considering costs. This is fine for the happy warriors and self-promoters who ply their trade in auditoriums and bookstores. But in real life, there’s something to be said for success.
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