Stop Fetishizing Failure.

At the HarvardXDesign conference – a great event for the B-School– I was on a panel that did a crit on two teams from across Harvard that were the best of 9 teams competing in the challenge of How Would You Redesign Education in America. Kickstarter’s Charles Adler, IIt Institute of Design’s Patrick Whitney, Continuum’s Harry West were on the panel as well.

The second team presented their idea of doing a log on failure from the time you are in K-12 through your life that could constitute of Portfolio of Failure. The idea, of course, was to allow us to see our failures, plot them, and learn from them.  I could hear the refrain in my ears “Fail early, fail, fast, fail often.”  Now I know the context of the conversation around failure–its about prototyping, moving fast, learning quickly, evolving to get to a workable and perhaps best solution. 

But I’ve never liked this embrace of failure. We learn as much from our successes as from our failure and I suspect we learn much more. Besides, I failed a lot in school. I didn’t test all that well and didn’t get straight As. Failure made me feel awful. And I think failure makes kids in urban public schools or on the rez feel just as bad if not much worse. Many are already close to despair in their lives. Failure is deeply meaningful to them. It has serious consequences. Get labelled a “Failure” and it can ruin your life.  As a pedagogical methodology, embracing failure  is the last thing these kids need.

The thing about this fetching of failure is that is can work if you’re at Stanford or Harvard and you were lucky enough to be born into a well-off family and went to a good school and were brought up to be and feel accomplished and secure enough to make failure a  feature of your learning. 

But be aware of the fallacy of failure. It is celebrated only when you succeed. If you continue to fail, you’re going to be– A Failure. So the fetishism of failure really means you can fail a couple of time–two or three or maybe three times– but no more. How many entrepreneurs are celebrated for their sixth or seventh try? 

Failure is usually associated with problem-solving. There’s an assumption that there is one right problem with one right answer and if you can’t get it, you fail. But what if you don’t even know what the problems are and there are lots of ways of dealing with them? I prefer the Play mode of dealing with challenges. When you play, there are rules but they change as you play the game. There are different outcomes to playing a game, different ways of winning. When something doesn’t work, you try another. You do work arounds. Is that Failure? I don’t think so. Do kids who go to Montessori school think of themselves as Failures when their blocks don’t quite fit together? I doubt it.

So maybe it’s time to challenge this orthodoxy of Fail, Fail, Fail so you can Succeed, Succeed, Succeed. It’s all about the learning and the knowledge and you don’t have to embrace a cult of failure to get that.

In our post global world, we have continued to see a critical need for a deeper understanding of innovation, global collaboration and sociocultural interaction. We reject the idea that designers are right-brainers and analysts are left-brainers…we all have to be whole-brainers to create the future we envision. We are connected more than ever, and have created powerful tools to help us harness this connectivity. Moreover, our daily behaviors, even on an individual level, are changing dramatically as a result of these new tools. This also spells change for large organizations, businesses – even countries – and raises questions about how design can not only affect change, but shape the process towards a designed outcome. The Helsinki Design Lab calls this stewardship —

“ the art of balancing agency and reflexivity. For us it’s the conscious design that builds political, economic, and social interests towards a desired state; it’s the art of getting there. And when we speak about design in this context, we speak of it as a leadership model: a way of leading in an uncertain world, where iteration is the key to connecting opportunity to impact. In our work, design and stewardship are interconnected.”

—  2013 HarvardxDesign Manifesto