The Search for Failure

I recently read a quote attributed to Yoshida Kotaro Sensei: "There is no failure, only feedback." On the same day, I read "Must fail to succeed."

I appreciated these quotes and found them to be very true. However, I know of no one who accepts--indeed, embraces--failure the way I do. On the contrary, most people I know are terrified of failure, embarrassed by past failures, and willing to go to excessive lengths to avoid failure.

Of course, I am not talking about failure due to sheer foolhardiness or haste, from doing something you already know will fail. That sort of failure is to be avoided. The failure that should be accepted--even cultivated--is the failure that comes from doing something you don't know will succeed or fail, from the desire to know what is unknown or unknowable.

I'm almost always willing to try something completely new and different. I'm a firm believer in continuous learning and improvement. I assume that even if I already know most of what you're telling me, it's worth listening to what you have to say. Perhaps you'll cast doubt on something I mistakenly took for granted. In that case, why not learn the truth instead of perpetuating the mistake, stubbornly holding on to a delusion? Or perhaps you'll show me an eloquent, concise way to express something we both already know. Even if, in the immediate term, I get nothing new or useful out of listening to you, I hope my willingness will encourage you to talk at another time, when the result is more productive. And why care so much about productivity anyway? Talking and listening are critical and simple ways to build human relationships, to enjoy life.

If you want to master a subject, or even a physical skill, it helps to experiment, and those experiments will sometimes fail. An experimental success gives you a good feeling for having your hunch or intuition proven out. If an experiment fails, disappointment and frustration are very natural first reactions, but wallowing in self-pity is something that can be avoided. I try to shift my attention away from disappointment. Instead, I talk to myself and others about how good it is to know about this failure in a low-risk experimental setting rather than a high-risk setting.

It is wrong to assume every one is like this. Some people seem to be risk-averse, pathologically so. What I mean is, they avoid short term risk even though doing so is destructive in the long term. Others are quick to punish failure. Others are so arrogant they think there is nothing for them to learn, no way for them to improve. Possibly they expect a narrow flavor of learning or improvement. They expect everything to be exactly the same except the result is produced faster or looks better.

In business, competition is continuous, and demands continuous differentiation. It is sheer delusion to expect that whatever worked in the past will work in the future.

I reject the idea that any one person has a monopoly on the truth. This makes it difficult for me in good conscience to profess absolute certainty. I'm like the scientist who is willing to accept nothing beyond the logical conclusions of rigorous experimental observations, or like the lawyer who interprets testimony not as "what happened" but as "what one person said he remembers seeing happen." This makes me skeptical of any one who professes absolute certainty.

Unfortunately, people seem to expect just this kind of certainty from leaders. They don't want someone who shows willingness or ability to learn. Instead, they want someone who apparently knows better than they, someone who "has done it before," is good enough to teach. They don't want someone who is open to feedback. They want someone who can use their experience to nip any criticism in the bud.

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Updated at: 2015-05-30 16:22:26 UTC