Wednesday, September 01, 2010

In Praise of Tiny Failures

Everyone always talks about the learning value of failure. It's hard, it's painful, but you gain more than you lose--at least, that's how the story goes. In reality, we all spend most of our time trying to avoid failure, because the unpleasantness can have significant repercussions we may not want to trade for a shiny life lesson. Few people lose their savings, their job, or a relationship willingly.

And so I'd like to extoll a humble kind of failure: the small one that makes you laugh, learn, and move on to the next thing. Last week, I prototyped four exhibit ideas with the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Three were hits. One was a total dud. It was exhilarating at the end of the first day of testing to point to the poor performer, wag a finger, and dump it. We'd spent about 20 hours in development of each idea, and it felt just fine to trade that time for the things we learned in the process. Since it was just one of four prototypes, it didn't feel like our time was wasted; the failure helped us sort out what was working and what wasn't.

Four good things about this kind of failure:
  1. It confirmed that there was a difference in visitor response to different facilitated activities. The fact that visitors hated one made their enjoyment of others seem more valid.
  2. It suggested that we had designed a sufficiently risky set of experiments and were trying hard enough to find new and interesting ways to connect with visitors.
  3. Practically, it let us focus on the other three prototypes and spend more time thinking about whether and how to scale them up.
  4. The parallel approach softened the emotional blow of failing. I felt proud of all four of these ideas going into testing, but I was able to let the one that failed go easily, bolstered by the knowledge that the other three worked. I think in the future I'll try to always test several things in parallel--it was a good experience both for the ego and for the part of my brain that can make better judgments of things in comparison to each other than in isolation.
When I practice rock climbing at an indoor gym, I take the same approach. I know I'm going to climb multiple walls in one session, and as long as I'm being safe, my perspective is that I should fall at least once every time. If I'm not falling, I'm not pushing myself. It's not a life or death failure--it's a momentary, incremental test that helps me learn something and compare my current skills to the past. It also helps me prepare for outdoor climbing, where the stakes of failure are much higher.

And this is the final thing I think is beneficial about small failures; they help us have perspective about the range of impacts that failure can make. A friend recently sent me an interview with Google's head of research, Peter Norvig, in which he said:
If you're a politician, admitting you're wrong is a weakness, but if you're an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you're always right, then you aren't getting enough information out of those experiments. You want your experiment to be like the flip of a coin: You have no idea if it is going to come up heads or tails. You want to not know what the results are going to be.
He noted again and again that at Google, failure is always an option because the work they are doing is not life or death. Throughout the interview, he compared Google to other businesses--banks, NASA, surgeons--for whom a small error or an experimental approach might indeed cause very big problems.

Cultural professionals are, for the most part, not dealing with situations that could cause monumental, life-altering trauma. We need to be able to put our failures into perspective--the big and the small. And at least for me, that starts with trying multiple things at once. At the end of the day, you can toast the good and give a hearty Bronx cheer to the bad, without regret or self-judgment.

How do you cultivate and deal with failure in your work?
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