Happy Failweek!

April 5, 2011 § 4 Comments

My Twitter friend, Emilie Wapnick, one, has a great website, and two, an interesting idea. She wants to celebrate failure.

But I object to the idea that failure is “feedback.”  I don’t think so. Failure is failure. Calling it feedback just sounds like some touchy-feely way of making it feel like I never lose, of saving our self-esteem. We all win, we all lose, we all have successes and failures. That’s life. Indeed, Frank Sinatra made exactly that point in song:

That’s life, that’s what all the people say.
You’re riding high in April,
Shot down in May
But I know I’m gonna change that tune,
When I’m back on top, back on top in June.

To call our failures feedback, while an admirable idea in order to get us to learn from our mistakes, is wrong-headed. We need to learn from our failures, but we don’t learn from sugar-coating things, at least in my humble opinion.

But Emilie’s idea goes beyond this:

How about instead of denying the existence of failure (since it’s “all feedback”), we acknowledge that it exists and embrace it. What if we actually PRAISED people for failing? What if success were measured by ACTION rather than results?

I think that if we all took some time to praise failure and even encourage it on a regular basis, there would be much more experimentation, creativity and innovation in the world.

The more we celebrate failure, the more we’ll all be encouraged to take action. So lets do it. Lets take this week and celebrate our most mortifying, horrific, soul-crushing failures!

Alright, so I’m never going to celebrate my mortifying, horrific soul-crushing failures. I don’t think that does anything, I prefer to grieve in private, lick my wounds, and figure out how to go forward.

But I love Emilie’s idea of measuring success by action foremost. Results are important, but sometimes we need to take action even if we’re going to lose, to “fight the good fight,” so to speak. This is part and parcel of the working-class Irish-Catholic culture I come from, immortalised in song by the Dropkick Murphys in their song for “Irish” Micky Ward (who, I must gloat, got his clock cleaned by my hometown boy, the late Arturo Gatti), “The Warrior’s Code”:

Failure works in many ways. It can work in the Mickey Ward sense of not giving up, or in the sense any good activist knows, of fighting the good fight whatever the results. But sometimes success comes from failure, too, as some of the people Emilie talked to on her blog point out. One of my favourite Simpsons moments (yes, there once was a time when that show was funny) comes when Lisa points out to Homer that the Chinese have the same word for crisis and opportunity. Homer, who had been down for some reason or other, immediately brightens up, allegedly recalling the word “crisitunity.” Ok, so we can laugh at Homer’s stupidity, but there’s a point to be made here.

And if we choose not to sink into the doldrums over failure, if we instead celebrate some forms of it, then perhaps we do get what Emilie wants, which is more creativity and experimentation and innovation. I’ve spent a lot of time of late reading about the Scientific Revolution and its aftermath, and one thing that is clear is that the brilliant successes and innovations of the likes of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Hawking, is that they are all built on earlier failures. But, in the spirit of scientific experimentation, they had no choice but to carry on. So perhaps we should engage with our inner scientists and take what we can from failure to figure out how to succeed?

So perhaps failure isn’t the evil we’re lead to believe it is, perhaps in failing we can continue to try to make the world a better place and we can learn from our mistakes, or we can recognise that our failures are the keys to our successes.

So, alright, it’s Failweek. The Twitter tag is #failweek.  Rock on, my friends, celebrate your failures and figure how to gain from them. If anyone needs me, I’ll be licking my wounds and pondering my comeback.


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§ 4 Responses to Happy Failweek!

  • Emilie says:

    Great stuff Matthew! I love your take on this.

    I agree that the “failure is feedback” approach isn’t all that helpful. It also ignores the emotional reality of failing, which feels pretty damn awful. That’s why I think that instead of denying that failure exists, we should try being proud of our failures– or if that’s too difficult, at least share them.

    I do think that the more we hear about each other’s failures, the easier it gets to take action, and like you said, that’s the ultimate goal of #failweek. 🙂

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    Yeah, exactly, we need to dig the horrible feeling of failure in order to gain some sense of ownership or idea of how to succeed from our failures. It’s trite, but I tend to believe the old saying of “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Thanks for reading.

  • Abe says:

    This is a pretty bitchin “comeback” article. Excellent points on failure from Homer Simpson to the Scientific Revolution! Like you and Emilie mention, everyone deals with failure in their own way. The great thing about externalizing it is that we can see what worked and didn’t work for others and use this common knowledge to progress a little faster in our own experiences. The key here I think is always be learning. Again, great insightful post. Thanks John Matthew!

  • […] Spatialities: “Happy Failweek!” […]

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