Finding An Alternative to “Success-Failure” Speak

Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward (John C. Maxwell)

Some problems remain problems because of the language we use to frame it. And quite frankly, “failure” sucks.

Being successful is something we all want in our lives, and failure carries a weight of shame. Sublimating “failure” as “learning” is a conceptual convolution. We’re not wired to think that way. Failure is about inadequacy and culpability—if we really thought it was about learning, it would have more profile in our presentations and conferences. Instead, we skip the “failing” part and jump right to “key learning,” which is to say, what have successful people learned about being successful?

“Failing forward” is a psychologically discordant word combination. If we experience failure as inadequacy and culpability, then failing forward produces psychological analogues of forgiveness, redemption or overcoming. Learning becomes a remedial outcome rather than a primary one—we’d rather we hadn’t failed, but now that we have, let’s do our best to learn from it and move on. Some of us would rather just put it behind us—try to forget about it or cover it up with future success. It’s usually painful.

Design methodology and prototyping may prove an exception wherein failure is a “small-f” word that applies more to single occurrences of an iterative series than to the whole series. In such cases, the designer has been conditioned to regard these small failures as logical and practical precursors to creation. But I speculate that even designers may struggle with the “large-F” failure of a series of iterations, when a line of development has to be killed, and wonder whether there were lapses in their insights, intuition, creativity, skills or methods.

“Fail early and fail often” because no one wants to be responsible for a colossal failure. The consolation of small failures is that it mitigates the risk of having a major one. But “failure” is still a contaminated word and I think it’s unfortunate that we have tied it to experimentation and innovation. If we used “testing forward,” no one would blink an eye because testing implies uncertainty and experiment, and because it’s primary function is learning. “Failure,” on the other hand, implies one has completely and utterly screwed up. Within an experimentation context, some failure may come from sloppiness, and some from hunches that simply don’t get traction—but conflating the two is the problem. They are not both “failures.”

“Failure wakes” might be construed as a therapeutic ritual to purge shame, find humour in screwing up, and/or to salvage some learning. But it’s typically only successful people who take the stage—those whose wins are a little more widely celebrated and who enjoy established reputations. We want to learn from successful people who have failed, not unsuccessful people who have failed, because the former is alchemy and the latter is the spectre that haunts us. But even the occasional failure wake is a trickle compared to the tsunami of demand for successful case studies. That is telling.

And let’s face it: successes are rarely successful.

They almost always fall short of how they are being represented, especially if it is a solution to a complex problem. Truly innovative solutions are often messy. They consist of things like burnout, conflict, instability, sloppiness and haste, strategic blunders, bad hires, bad management, paper-and-tape prototypes, naiveté, serendipity, bad timing, good timing, casual-but-significant influence from others, etc. But we don’t tell those parts of the story—we talk about linear historical development, defined roles, particular activities and outcomes. Barriers overcome. Creative ideas made real. Powerful partnerships. Gumption. Why? Because we want to be inspired and because those telling the stories are expected to have something inspiring to say.

But if the frame is “success,” and if the story is alleged to be a description of what is true, then there is a problem. Most of us are a little cautious about what people claim as true because we’ve been around for a while. We’ve seen enough gaps between rhetoric and reality, including our own, to know that we’d be naïve to be so easily taken in. Plus, it’s hard to believe that others have nailed it so perfectly and deserve acknowledgment while we are still struggling. Why them, anyways? Why hasn’t our work been noticed? It’s fertile ground for peevishness, pettiness and sabotage. People who may have peeked behind the curtain of someone else’s success, or who have heard rumours of what lies behind it, or who feel threatened by them, are sometimes only too happy to provide a counter-narrative and let the air out of the balloon. And we all feel a bit deflated, even resentful, but not really sure why.

The frame of “success” is not helpful because it’s not accurate, because it constricts the range of available learning, because it suggests completion, and because it can foment disillusionment, unhealthy competition and envy.

I’d like to propose a different word-pair, something a little closer to what I think is actually happening: something like Aspiration-Trying. I don’t know if that’s quite right, but it’s something like that. In other words, “x” is what we are aspiring to do, and “y” is how we are trying to do it.

The stories shared by presenters are not the full stories, and nor are they exactly “true.” Neither are my own stories, even though I believe in them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are being hypocritical or deceptive or pretenders, or that they haven’t accomplished something potent, interesting and unique. Their stories have been mischaracterized as descriptively true“success” stories rather than something aspirational that has been given concrete form; an act of reification. Will and imagination transmuted into form and content.

These aspirational stories are neither quite fiction nor non-fiction but have a mythological structure—one part historicity, one part personal experience, and one part yearning. It’s like an archetypal quest, a risky journey to create a better world, and it’s saturated with the truths of human experience—there is loss; there is overcoming; there is destruction and creation, capriciousness and tragedy, prosperity and beauty, a little luck and a little fate. And now there is a song sung about it, because it is a quest that stands out from other quests. The facts may be sketchy, or selective, but the truth is still manifest: a bold yet all-too-human undertaking to reshape the world. Something interesting is happening.

Aspirational stories are stories about intentions-made-real. When told, they are meant to inspire us and to teach us even though they are imperfect and incomplete. They reference new things in the world, new journeys, and invite us to find some meaning and inspiration from it. There will be takeaways, not born of capital-s “Success,” but of accomplishments and struggle. Making these stories visible is important because they provide exemplars of new approaches, perspectives, and languages, and because they illustrate what sorts of solutions might exist, what sorts of strategies and methods might be applied, and what forms they might take. There is a lot of good learning to be had, both for those who are reflecting on their own journey as well as for those who are open to hearing about it.Everything is on the table for learning because everything is about trying to do something. It’s not just how one overcame some obstacle or other.

These stories are worth paying attention to, though they mustn’t be confused with success. If a person tells a success story as a success story, and wants to write his or her own song, one invites a different kind of scrutiny. Truth has an uncompromising standard, after all, and there is the risk of being regarded as a braggart or a fraud and to have one’s good work ignored (unless one nailed it, of course). But if one acknowledges one’s stories as aspiration and effort, one is released from the tyranny of success and truth-mongering. It can be a triumphant story while also messy, unfinished and imperfect. Because that is what a quest looks like. And anyone who sees that as failure or unworthy is in the wrong business.

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