I’m currently reading a fascinating new book by Megan McArdle called The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success. In it, she argues that failure is vital to success, partially because it’s only through making mistakes (failing) that we really learn anything of value.
We even hear CEOs and other leaders say things like, “We need to fail more often!” The ones who are particularly good actors, in fact, are able to say this in such a way that we actually believe them. (Occasionally, though, you run into a forward-thinking leader who really does get it. I’ll introduce you to one such leader in a few paragraphs.)
So why, then, are we so loathe to fail? McArdle cites a number of reasons—some involving brain science and dopamine—including (not surprisingly) our educational system, which all too often only rewards the right answer, and not the process.
Virtually every great success is the end result of a process—a process that almost invariably had some missteps (failures) along the way. Truly effective leaders recognize that these “failures” are a crucial part of the process.
Nike Gets It
I recently did some work with Nike’s Materials Innovation team (they’re the ones who invent the technology the sports superstars will be wearing 5-10 years from now). During one of my conversations with their leader, Myron Maurer, he told me that one of the things he worked hard to instill in his team culture was the idea of truly embracing (not just accepting) failure as a critical part of the creative process. You don’t get to be a part of Myron’s amazing team by “playing safe.”
Almost Live’s History of Failure
During the 15 years that I was the Executive Producer of Seattle’s legendary comedy TV show, Almost Live!, my team and I produced nearly 450 shows, performed more than 2500 sketches, and wrote hundreds of thousands of jokes. About once every two or three years, we’d put on what I would have to admit was a bad show; about once every three or four shows, we’d put on a bad sketch; and I’m not sure we ever did a show where at least one or two jokes didn’t fall flat.
What Do You Do?
So what do you do when a joke, or a sketch, or an entire show fails? Do you say, “My God, we suck!” and toss in the towel? Do you fire the guy who wrote the lame joke? Do you get rid of the incompetent Executive Producer and try to find somebody with some actual talent? The answer to all of these (including, thankfully, the last one) is an emphatic NO. So what do you do?
You write another joke. You create another sketch. You produce another show. And you learn.
You learn, and you get better. And it’s that continual improvement that leads to greater and greater success.
That’s why my team and I won more than 100 Emmy Awards. That’s why so many sports superstars wear Nike.
By the way, one of my writers—Bob Nelson—who occasionally (albeit rarely) wrote a clunker, is now an Academy Award nominee (Best Screenplay, Nebraska). I’m sure glad I didn’t fire him over a bad joke or two.