In Praise of Failure

Ian Sacs's picture

I can't tell you how many times I have been wrong, but often will suffice.  Being wrong can be hard to accept, but I believe it goes hand in hand with being creative and sharing ideas.  And, one gets used to it.  Planners are often expected to simultaneously know all the answers and also be creative, which is obviously a conundrum.  There is no point in being creative – that is, crafting new ideas – if you already have all the answers.  Knowing the answer means that the problem has already been solved, and therefore no need exists to be creative.  Conversely, unless the answer to everything is already known, there need be creativity; and, I submit, creativity must come with failures else it is simply not so creative.


"I have not failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." -Thomas A. Edison


I empathetically remind those unfortunate enough to spend much time with me that my form of humor (or call it what you will) is founded on a premise of "quantity, not quality".  That is, if I try enough angles, something is sure to hit.  The same, perhaps, is true for my professional problem-solving technique. As weak jokes are not necessarily uncreative ones - they just are not as funny as others – weak ideas can occasionally lead to new directions and, sometimes, good ideas, and every once in a while, they are really good ideas.

Some time ago I accepted that I was often wrong (In the wedding vows? No, no, that was "always".), and ever since I have succeeded through all sorts of difficult challenges by sharing my thoughts with the group to watch most of them crash and burn.  Sharing ideas freely doesn't mean being intentionally wrong - that would be a waste of everyone's time - I am trying to solve the problem at hand.  But after several early years of struggling to always be right straight away (slightly impossible and therefore excruciating as a young planner/engineer), I acquired a quiet credo of being simply unafraid to speak my mind, share my ideas, and watch all sorts of people trounce them.  What fun!  After all, what other option did I have?  Silence, an alternative?  Impossible!

Sharing creative ideas - and hence being wrong a lot - leads to several positive outcomes.  First, it stimulates conversation in new directions, which I enjoy and find are often productive and always intriguing.  Second, it encourages others to relax and perhaps contribute their own unconventional ideas, which are regularly better than mine.  Third - and perhaps equally most subtle and important - it includes all members of the conversation in a healthy exercise of reaffirming why certain conventions were adopted, and why certain ideas don't work, which is very important to me because I am a "question authority" person and this effort either sets me straight or, sometimes, identifies weaknesses in conventional assumptions that can lead the way to refinements or outright shifts in practice.  This last point is not a waste of time; it is the counterbalance to the "we've always done it that way" response that inevitably leads to all things banal and subverts organizations.

I remember vividly being on a conference call about two years ago with my peers and several very important people when I suggested an idea to the group to which one of the most important participants said in an extremely dismissive tone over the speaker, "What are you talking about?", followed by uncomfortable silence from all parties.  That was embarrassing, I admit, but instead of being paralyzed I persisted to explain my idea (I was asked to clarify, after all!).  There was no further action on my idea at the time, but funny enough, two years on, it is now firmly included in the group's solution strategy.  Not always does such vindication result from freely voicing ideas, but perhaps being a planner is not about the fame and prestige of always having the right answer, or the glory of being credited for coining an innovative solution,  but more about the self-satisfaction from contributing in a positive way to so many smaller solutions that improve communities; at least, it pays that way.

Jonah Lehrer wrote in the New Yorker early last year about how brainstorming doesn't work.  The premise is that the fundamental brainstorming rule of "don't criticize" is the root cause of poor results for so many group-thinks.  I tend to agree that, without critical discussion, strong, effective new solutions rarely emerge.  The challenge is that modifying the rules of brainstorming to permit criticism means participants are either willing to be wrong among their peers, or quiet.  Most meetings wherein brainstorming happens do not explicitly start with someone stating the rules, so the choice is therefore implicit.  Each person may accept the risk of being wrong among peers for the betterment of the group's work.  Will you express ideas freely, or hold your tongue for only the patently brilliant solutions?

I believe that being wrong contributes immensely to professional experience, as much as – or more than – being right, and it moves the group along to a better solution faster.  With the exception of the brilliant few, wrong ideas happen much more often than successful ones, but pretermitting the open test of your ideas for fear of failure is a recipe for stunted development and slow or lackluster solutions.  Failures, when experienced as part of creatively contributing to the solution, are not just OK, they are a good thing; individuals and organizations know they stand to benefit from fostering environments open to free expression of ideas, but are checked by fear of being wrong.  I am proud of all my many failures not because of their impracticability, but because from that morass of wrongness emerges, with persistence, original and successful ideas.  Given how uncreative humanity is as a whole, even a few original ideas are worth one's while.

Ian Sacs, P.E. is a worldwide transportation solutions consultant based in Finland.


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