Failing Bigger, Faster, Better…

The Clinton Global Initiative Conference is underway in New York City this week (FB: Clinton Global Initiative; Twitter: @ClintonGlobal; #CGI2014). We’ll be following along as topics of interest come up, and this was the first one that caught our eye today.

What could you achieve if you weren’t afraid to fail?

In fact, what if failure was a deliberate part of the conversation:  what are the ways in which failure helps us to learn and to work more efficiently?

We all know, theoretically and empirically, that failure is part of the learning process. A child building with blocks learns just how high she can make that tower before it collapses. Yet, when it comes to our lives as scholars and business people, we pretend that failure doesn’t exist. We don’t talk about it in class because we want to keep our grades up; we don’t write about it because we want to be published; and we certainly don’t admit it to clients because to do so might invite a lawsuit.

So it was exciting to see this panel on failure, focusing on the idea of failure as a mechanism to bring about greater impact. The title of the panel was essentially “Failing Bigger, Faster and Better” which is an astonishing concept in our risk-averse, keep-your-head-down-and-your-nose-clean world. The panel moderator talked about “smart failures” and “dumb failures” — the former being those one learns from — in the broad context of his work to reduce poverty worldwide.

Next, President Grimsson of Iceland offered his country as a perfect example of failure — a singular admission from a politician — because, he said, six years ago, they suffered a complete economic collapse. The big lesson he offered from this failure was this:  be willing to fail. Go against the prevailing opinion, if that’s what you think is the best course of action. Take the risk of doing what everyone is telling you not to do. Prevailing opinion, he said, gives you an “imaginary guarantee” that everything will work out, when, of course, there are no such assurances. Do it your own way, he said. Trust yourself.

As an example, he offered his own country’s response to their economic crisis: they allowed their banks to go bankrupt, despite the prevailing wisdom that this was a huge mistake. Six years later, he says, they are in a very strong financial position with low unemployment and a strong economy. Out of failure came renewed success.

President Grimsson also criticized the current political and media climate in which a single mistake can be a person’s doom. In this climate, he said, no one is willing to risk anything or propose any creative ideas; everyone just plays it safe. We have created a culture in which failure equals the end of a career, he said, and we need to change that.

Think about failure in your own work. What is your attitude towards it? Are you willing to stand by your own ideas against the prevailing wisdom? Are you ready to take chances, knowing you might fail, in order to succeed bigger and better on the other end? Are you learning from your mistakes and taking action based on what you learn? Or are you following the crowd, playing it safe, doing what is expected to keep others — be they professors, parents, investors/donors, or peers — happy?

Interesting and challenging thoughts. There are no easy answers here. We’d love to know what you think.

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