How our failure to fail impedes our success

Sven is onto something

I just read this post by Sven Fechner. Sven, for those who do not know of him, is one of the most prolific and relevant bloggers on personal productivity. He also has a day job working for a large multinational. I admire this guy, because he achieves what most of us only have the ambition to do. Working a full time job and still blogging on a regular basis.

In his post, which is excellent in its entirety, he speaks with insight and humility about failure. I would like to quote the whole post, but this phrase resonated the most with me …

it feels more credible now that the option of failure has become an actual result.

He touches on an aspect that I know to be true. Most of us have truly forgotten how to fail. Because we are afraid to fail. There is no longer any merit in failure. And this is different from how things used to be.

We can no longer recognize the merit in our failures

There used to be real merit in failure. While achieving the outcome was important for any project, the road to that outcome was important as well, perhaps even more important than the ultimate outcome. It was an integral part of learning, very much essential to it. And while failure still constitutes an important part of learning, public failure is no longer acceptable. It has become something to avoid.

Let me illustrate failure has become culturally unacceptable in Belgium. Fewer and fewer middle and high school students are receiving non passing grades. Even if they have not done the work and have not learned what there is to be learned, they are not necessarily being held back because it is considered to be bad for the self image of the child. Instead, rather than failing, they are being offered alternative educational choices. They end up failing and not even being aware of it. Or rather, they do not fail, but we change the intended outcome without allowing them to understand what they are not good at. The road is no longer relevant for them. It’s just something they need to go through.

A pressure to perform

It does not change once these people get into the job market. The pressure to perform, to show results, to achieve outcomes, any outcomes on young people is enormous. The pressure to keep delivering outcomes on older people is even bigger, because there is the stress of being rendered irrelevant. In such environment, the acceptance of failure is low to non-existent.

We fail to provide an adequate proving ground for people. We fail to allow them to learn. We fail to allow them to actually learn to understand life. And that might just be our biggest failure.

The pressure to perform and to remain so is ever present. And what we fail to understand is that we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn. And denied the opportunity to learn, we will not get better at anything. We risk to get significantly worse.

Outcome creep

We need to actually to do the work, not avoid it be redefining our outcomes – outcome creep – along the way for no other reason than our inability to achieve them and our fear of looking bad. Not failing is easy, especially if your are not doing what you should have been doing.

This is why I salute Sven, who bears the mark of a true professional: someone who commits wholeheartedly even if failure is a possibility, because it is required, because it will teach us.

I’m an internal auditor. Looking for failures is my job. But I can tell you there is a real difference for me as an internal auditor between people who have truly tried and failed and those who never have. If you go in to a project or a challenge, understanding full well that it can go wrong, but committed to do the work, I consider you to be a professional, because you know the learning is for 99% in the journey, and only for 1% in the result. The learning is in the hard but objective assessment of what happened and how to improve it.

In development aid, we have a name for that. We call it capitalization.

However, if you go in just to get lauded for the results, without a willingness to learn anything about the process, about the work and yourself, you will remain merely an amateur.

Solving the problem

A correct application of GTD provides a starting point for solving this problem: whenever you approach a project, you need to look beyond the concrete actions at what the ultimate objective of the project is, even before you start working on it.

Defining clear and measureable outcomes will help you in being accountable as to the ultimate outcome and as to your learning in the process.

Let me rephrase that: be wary of projects without clearly defined outcomes that are measureable. Be wary of people who structurally avoid committing to them. Rather, go with professionals like Sven, who are willing to admit their failures. I’m sure he learned more than others not willing to admit their defeat in a project. I know I did every time I failed. And I learned a lot and continue to learn every day.

In closing – Acumen’s Manifesto

The Acumen Fund recently published this Manifesto. I’ve taken the liberty to copy what I consider to be one of the most essential parts of it. It defines how they look at their mission, a mission close to my heart, as I work in development aid. Here it is:

It thrives on moral imagination: the humility to see the world
as it is, and the audacity to imagine the world as it could be.
It’s having the ambition to learn at the edge, the wisdom to
admit failure, and the courage to start again.