Failure Fetish

It’s hip to fail. Fail fast, fail smart, learn to fail…failure is all over the business and self-help literature these days. It’s as if we have developed a fetish for failure. I’ve been puzzling over why this is, and I think I have one answer: we are reacting to the fetish we have made of perfection. It is as if failure and perfection are two weights at the end of a see-saw, and we are trying to make them balance. But, of course, we are failing.

Having a problem with perfection is pretty understandable, and I’ve written about it before: aiming for perfection can mean taking fewer risks, hiding our missteps, and delivering too slowly in a futile attempt to get something totally right. That isn’t to say that there aren’t times when accuracy isn’t critical – my family has been on a space movie kick lately, and watching Hidden Figures and Apollo 13 was a good reminder that there are fields where correct and incorrect are quantifiable and critical, and correct is the only thing that gets people home safely. But my field, and my life in general, is more forgiving, one where “correct” is qualitative rather than quantitative, and a focus on perfection is rarely helpful.

Somewhere, sometime over the past thirty years we did develop a fetish with perfection, though. Perfect grades, perfect skin, perfect house, perfect job, perfect life. I myself am not of the perfection generation – I was a latch-key kid eating fluffernutters while watching General Hospital after school in the ‘80s. My generation was the grunge generation, all Kurt Cobain darkness, flannel, and dirty ripped jeans. I personally added learning difficulties to the mix, so perfection at school wasn’t an option, either. But something happened as the 90’s gave way to the aughts (may I blame the Internet: Facebook, Pintrest, and the rest?), and by the time my son was born in ’06 perfect was something to aim for. I bought it and felt the need to breastfeed perfectly, chose a day care perfectly, balance work and family perfectly. Need I say I failed? My son quit nursing long before the WHO said he should, a lady at my son’s daycare slapped him, and my work-life wasn’t in balance, but in mayhem.

So after all of that, what can I possibly have against our current celebration of failure? Isn’t it better than a glorification of perfection? Sure, I guess so. The problem is that we are now applying the rules of perfection to failure. One doesn’t fail anymore, one learns from failure. One doesn’t make a mistake, one takes risks and gambles. One doesn’t fall down, one gets back up. In order for failure to be at all acceptable these days, one must fail…perfectly. Here we are, in the same old spot judging whether we are doing everything right, including failure.

Look, we make mistakes. Personally, I am often forgetful, I am usually tired, and sometimes when I fall down I wallow around in self-pity. Those things sometimes lead to failure. In fact, those things are the causes of my failures as often as the “justifiable” causes of failure like “complexity” and “testing” you’ll find written up in the Harvard Business Review (this is a really nice article from HBR on learning from failure at work, all snark aside). But no one asks you to present at a Fail Fair or write-up a case study about how you failed due to procrastination or laziness. When we talk about celebrating failure, we only really mean celebrating failure that results from shooting for perfection and (predictably) falling short. We only like failure that can be redeemed.

I truly like Fail Fairs and case studies and after action reviews and other ways to learn from failure. We should absolutely do more of them. But let’s also recognize that if we fetishize failure, and make it so that only certain kinds of failures are acceptable, we are just making failure into a new form of perfection. Learning from failure needs to include space to say “yeah, that didn’t work because I overslept and didn’t have time to do it well,” or “that proposal we lost came through over Christmas and no one wanted to work on it over the holiday.” Those are messy, imperfect failures, and we could construct lessons about human nature and work schedules and relying on your dog as an alarm clock. But maybe some failures are just failures, neither to be celebrated or condemned, but simply forgiven.

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