Fetishizing Failure

Bruce Nussbaum has a rambling easy about the “cult of failure” on his Creative Intelligence blog. Its worth a read, but not in the way I believe Bruce intended.

At the HarvardXDesign conference — a great event for the B-School— I was on a panel that did a crit on two teams from across Harvard that were the best of 9 teams competing in the challenge of How Would You Redesign Education in America.

Awesome! A really interesting event, with curated & quality arguments, on relevant topic…

The second team presented their idea of doing a log on failure from the time you are in K-12 through your life that could constitute of Portfolio of Failure. The idea, of course, was to allow us to see our failures, plot them, and learn from them.  I could hear the refrain in my ears “Fail early, fail, fast, fail often.” [...] But I’ve never liked this embrace of failure. We learn as much from our successes as from our failure and I suspect we learn much more.

What a cool idea! Having a failure journal is totally unique and remarkably actionable.

Personally, I think people learn equally from success and failures, with the big factor being the specifics of the case in question. What is the risk? What is the benefit? What factors are at play? How much experience does one have in this arena? The value of the lessons learned goes way beyond the proposed binary.

Its also important to note why discussing failure is such a prominent conversation topic in creative and business circles: most people will gladly recount their wins, but it takes guts to be introspective on losses. So, most people do not adequately learn from them. Blogs, books, and conferences consistently repeat this mantra, not out of a cult-like fascination, but because it acts as powerful reminder. For those that ignore losses, they now have 50%+ info to learn from!

Besides, I failed a lot in school. I didn’t test all that well and didn’t get straight As. Failure made me feel awful.

Who in their right mind likes failure when its happening? It hurts. If I could erase high school and replace it with memories of Seinfeld I would (and I kind of did). The point here is that no one leaves failure feeling like the main character of an Ayn Rand novel. Failure is meant to make you feel bad. This painful emotions encourages movement. Bruce went on to do a bunch of amazing things, so the failure must have had its intended effect.

Bruce’s personal opinions are fine, as long as we don’t go extrapolating them…

And I think failure makes kids in urban public schools or on the rez feel just as bad if not much worse. Many are already close to despair in their lives. Failure is deeply meaningful to them. It has serious consequences. Get labelled a “failure” and it can ruin your life.  As a pedagogical methodology, embracing failure  is the last thing these kids need.

The jump here from personal to a larger scale, with zero data, is dangerous. In mere sentences Bruce applies his bad feeling to under-privileged kids, and then labels the feeling itself as life-ending. This is the equivalent of me disliking ice cream, saying that those less fortune than me also probably resent ice cream (due to its lack of economic availability), and propose the ban of that dastardly dessert.

The thing about this fetching of failure is that is can work if you’re at Stanford or Harvard and you were lucky enough to be born into a well-off family and went to a good school and were brought up to be and feel accomplished and secure enough to make failure a feature of your learning.

Wow. So only the affluent can enjoy the luxury of failure? To believe that others can is a viewpoint from a privileged, elitest, and clueless class, which doesn’t live in real society.

I grew up crazy poor. I failed so hard it still hurts. Thank you for speaking up for the common people, my hero!

But be aware of the fallacy of failure. It is celebrated only when you succeed. If you continue to fail, you’re going to be— A Failure. So the fetishism of failure really means you can fail a couple of time—two or three or maybe three times— but no more. How many entrepreneurs are celebrated for their sixth or seventh try?

This is incorrect. Bruce forgets his own profession’s impact on the cultural conversation. Writers frame the story, and readers get bored quick. Stories are shortened, refined. The rule of three comes into play. Bam – success in 600 words.

Bruce recently wrote a book about Creative Intelligence. If he is looking to change things, why didn’t he write about mundane everyday failures instead? Or why didn’t he tackle this topic in smaller chunks when he was at BusinessWeek? Or Fast Company? Or Harvard Business Review? Weird, right? Well, Bruce knows why. These are boring stories. Bruce’s strawman has no weight because he has literally made a living talking about success.

Think of the Children

My wife is a grade school teacher, and the attitude towards protecting kids from failure has risen considerably in the past ten years. When she began grading she used red pens. Now, they’re banned from the building because parents don’t want their children to get upset. So, my wife uses purple pens, places the homework in a folder, and sends to folder home for the parents to review. One parent she had was a very well-respected teacher of teachers. Instead of discussing learning strategies to improve his child’s struggles at a parent-teacher conference, he preferred to lecture her on the particular color of her purple pen, the security of the folders, and the possible inclusion of encouraging stickers.

This view isn’t limited to primary school. I’m on the curriculum team for a local college’s Graphic Design department and have been for ten years. Recently an argument broke out among a dozen partner art schools that I’d never heard before – college age kids are coming in unable to handle criticism. In one story, a graphic design class was undergoing a critic with a faux client. The fake client chose a winning design and the student was praised. The class blew up at this, and demanded to know why there were no second and third place winners. The teacher’s response? “In life, there is only one winner. Everyone else loses.”

How bad could this really be? One of the teachers mentioned during this discussion that she was moving back to her home country because she couldn’t take this anymore. She couldn’t teach kids that felt everyone deserved a prize just for showing up.

I hate the cloying desire to shrink wrap the past in perfection. I don’t believe that the past was perfect, but I also don’t believe we’re doing children a benefit by insulating them from reality. Two to three missteps before we fail? Sounds like Professor Nussbaum is getting his wish.

The Hidden Fetish

Bruce disagrees that failure is a valuable component of learning. Bruce disagrees with the way failure is viewed on a societal scale. Bruce disagrees with the view that failure is an equal opportunity offender across race and income lines. Bruce disagrees with the way the labeling of failure occurs. Bruce then proposes a scenario (that mirrors the HarvardXDesign conference’s) and says that his case is not failure at all, but play.

See the trend? Bruce is fetishizing the contrarian viewpoint.

If you believe something with conviction, it is no doubt wrong. Don’t worry though, Bruce can help you learn!

And he’ll charge $28.99 a pop for his book, or $60,000/year at Parsons. Then you can believe like him that random feelings have an equal weight against data, failure is a disease to be removed from the human experience, and anyone who believes otherwise is an elitest fool.

Via Hacker News