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September 29, 2010
The Argument Against Embracing Failure
Failure is good

Failure is good! We hear this all the time. “We need to fail. It’s okay to fail! Celebrate your failures!” At VCU Brandcenter, we’ve had speaker after speaker come to our Friday Forum who, among other things, implore us to “embrace failure!” We tell our students that school is a safe place to fail. And we’ve all heard (and probably said) one of the recent buzz-phrases in our industry, “Fail early, fail often!”

We’re training people to brag about their failures.

Failure is bad

Problem is, failure is bad. Failure means not succeeding. Failure means not finding the insight that would have made a difference in the campaign, or the creative execution that makes that insight real. Failure means not hitting the deadline, and hey, they’re not going to hold up the Super Bowl because your ad isn’t ready yet. Failure means not doing what our clients hired us to do. Failure means staring at the ceiling instead of sleeping, wondering if you or your agency have work in the morning.

From a psychological standpoint, failure leads to more failure, as we begin to expect and accept failure instead of success -- or if we celebrate failure as an end in itself.

Lipstick on a pig, polishing a, well, you get it. It still stinks no matter how you dress it up.

If you stop at “Failing equals good,” you’re missing the point. It’s like giving everyone a gold star for effort or explaining that the key to hitting the ball out of the park is holding the bat.

Woody Allen is quoted as saying, “Eighty-five percent of success is showing up.” I love Woody, especially his earlier funny films (by the way, that was a Woody reference), but I think he got it wrong.

A lot of people show up -- but it’s the other 15 percent of what they do that makes the difference between failure and success.

Necessary but not sufficient

It’s important to understand the difference between “necessary” and “sufficient.” Things that are necessary have to be present for something to happen, but other things may also have to be there. Things that are sufficient are all that’s necessary. Showing up is necessary, but it’s not the only thing that matters.

Failing may be necessary (and I’m not convinced it is), but it is never sufficient to bring success.

The key is to learn from failing and then act on that learning; without those, you’re just showing up and you might as well not have done anything in the first place.

That’s the part that keeps getting overlooked in these attempts to make a really great sound-bite homily. Failure isn’t good. Learning is good. Applying what you’ve learned is good. Success is good. Learning from errors is good.

To quote Kelly O’Keefe, managing director at VCU Brandcenter, “Like most people. I've experienced failure firsthand. It's not pleasant. It affects you. It affects others. It sets you back. I don't think you'll find a professional athlete or coach saying, ‘let's go out there and embrace failure’.”

Because the point isn’t to lose; it’s to win.

Embrace learning, not failing

At agencies where I’ve had any influence, we held post-mortem meetings on every project, regardless of outcome. We tore our work and the results to shreds, looking for mistakes we’d made, things we should have anticipated, things that went exactly how we hoped, and things that didn’t. We not only identified things that went wrong, we came up with plans on how to avoid doing them next time -- we focused on learning from our mistakes, not hiding from them, and certainly not celebrating them. When things worked well, we focused on learning how to apply that success in the future -- on what made it work, when it might work again, and when it was unlikely to work in the future.

And we kept getting better.

It’s not failing that’s good, it’s learning from failure that leads you incrementally toward success that’s good. To paraphrase Chip and Dan Heath in their excellent book, "Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard," do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t. You’ll never know which is which unless you go out of your way to look for it.

Call to action time: In order to avoid celebrating failure as an end in itself, examine every project, regardless of whether it worked or didn’t. Then identify specifically what worked and specifically what didn’t, and come up with a simple plan to avoid doing what didn’t work again and to do more of what did.

To quote Disney’s animated movie, "Meet the Robinsons," a film that in many ways is about overcoming failure, “If I gave up every time I failed, I would have never invented the meatball cannon!” But that only works if, in the words of the kids in "South Park," you can honestly say, “You know, I learned something today.”

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Mark Avnet is professor and head of the Creative Technology track at VCU Brandcenter, an award-winning graduate program in advertising. In addition, he consults on the application of creative technology and media psychology for brands. Read his blog and follow him on Twitter or here.

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