March 16, 2011

News & Opinion: Failing Can Be Cool

By: Sally Haldorson @ 9:29 AM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

This week's inBubbleWrap giveaway is for an eye-opening book called Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. Alina Tugend, a New York Times columnist, realizes that we've heard this message before--most often from our parents and early teachers--that we can and should learn from our mistakes and those who are afraid to make them become stagnant with a fear of failure. But Tugend wanted to explore "the inherent tension between what we're told--we must make mistakes in order to learn, how all great leaders and inventors have embraced them--and the reality that we often get punished for making mistakes and therefore try to avoid them--or cover them up...." Because that's the true issue, right? We may laud mistakes in theory, but in reality, mistakes are, well, mistakes. It's what we do with them after they are made that counts! So what is refreshing about Tugend's book is that she not only presents numerous stories about failures that evolved into great accomplishments, but she concentrates the progression of her book toward a bigger issue: just how does a person or an organization use mistake-making as a learning tool, as an evolutionary starting point?

Tugend isn't the only person advocating failure. I titled this post "Failing Can Be Cool" because that is a line from an email our boss, Jack, sent to me last week. We have been discussing a new project we hope to launch soon, and of course there are always the internal doubts about its future success. Jack assured us that should any of those doubts become real failures, well, then we will learn from it and move on, because failing can be cool. It reminded me, somewhat indirectly, of a quote by the painter Jasper Johns that a friend had recently posted on Facebook: ""Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that." Projects are a process of development and faith and feedback and growth. If we dare to think that the evolution of such projects is ever complete, then they immediately depreciate. This is the message of an article by Seth Godin from the September 2010 Harvard Business Review. Godin argues that because we have been so trained to avoid failure, we have narrowly defined failure with catastrophic terms and become, as a result, incredibly fearful of failing catastrophically, when really failure is everywhere, is commonplace, and embracing failure's ubiquity is the only way we improve our products and services.

Consider it serendipitous then that a special issue of the Harvard Business Review appeared in our office this morning, its cover blaring: The Failure Issue: How to Understand It, Learn From It, and Recover From It. The issue is chockful of articles on failure, chronicles of failure, case studies of failure. What becomes apparent echoes what Tugend also is espousing: accepting failure or mistake-making as a part of the human experiences, as a part of organizational growth is one thing, actually learning from it requires some deliberate strategy, some refined communication, some dedicated time for reflection, analysis, and application of changes.

Indeed, failure can be cool, but getting better as a result of our mistakes is the real challenge, and something we all need to learn to do. Hop over to inBubbleWrap to sign up to win a free copy of Alina Tugend's Better by Mistake.


About Sally Haldorson

Sally Haldorson's job as 800-CEO-READ’s General Manager is to make 800-CEO-READ a great place to work for our employees, and a consistently high-performing customer service organization for our clients, authors, and our partners in the publishing industry. In addition to her General Manager duties ensuring collaboration, integration, and quality, she reads, writes, reviews, curates, and edits for the company. Helping craft The 100 Best Business Books of All Time used parts of both skill sets. Outside of work, she is most likely to be found hitting a tennis ball around or hanging out with her boys (husband, child, dog) at home.