Thoughts and Reflections on Failure

Trying to develop a successful project while in the Peace Corps is similar to how I would imagine one goes about trying to write a novel, it may go through 40 or 50 drafts before it’s done well. The first one begins simply enough. You sit down with someone in your community and an open mind, deliberately listening to ideas. You attempt to understand the perceived problem and together brainstorm some solutions.

Next you are faced the disappointing tasks of trying to follow up with those whom had only a week ago seemed so enthusiastic upon first meeting, but are now seemingly nowhere to be found. This can be discouraging and too often we will just chalk it up to the culture and the values of the community we are working within. But is it? And even if it is, is it not our job to preserve it times of challenge.

Even in times of cooperation and mutual understanding we will still face other insurmountable obstacles that we must take on. The key I believe is struggling, a lot. The struggle, of course, is often about fear; the fear of getting it wrong, of hitting a dead end, of wasting time. Of failing!

Failure, It’s such an ugly word, isn’t it? It reeks of malignancy, of loss: the sense that what once went wrong cannot be set right, that the world has come to an end, that failures are failures forever that it’s not just the project that failed, but you. Successful people, we imagine, are somehow blessed with more optimism, bigger brains and higher ideals than the rest of us.

But are they? Successful people [creative people] fail every day, just like everybody else. Except for the fact that they don’t view failure as a verdict in the same way other do. They view it as an opportunity. Indeed, it’s failure that paves the way for creativity.

John Seely Brown is the former head of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the Xerox lab responsible for digital printing, the computer mouse and Ethernet. He says “trafficking in unlimited failure” let PARC’s employees invent once-unimaginable technologies. “My mantra inside PARC, which was never particularly appreciated in corporate headquarters, was at least 75% of the things we did failed,” he says. “We learn more from our failures than we could ever learn from our successes.”

Life certainly does have its ups and downs, we can all attest to that, but we must retain an even-keeled perspective; creative growth can often be incremental all the way through life. Such a long-term outlook is key to coping with Peace Corps, and indeed failure. Not necessarily getting it right the first time? That’s fine you’re recording something, anything, so that other ideas can rise to the surface. Hitting a dead end? Take a breath, take time to understand and try something else. That’s your creative drive kicking into gear.

The wonderful thing about such creative sparks is they’ll feed off one another. The terrible thing is that emotions might take over and reduce you to disappointment. But don’t let yourself be detoured so easily. I am beginning to believe that in development as in life, if you’re not failing, you’re not pushing hard enough.

This is not what I thought I’d be doing while growing up. I often considered a career as a doctor, or perhaps more reasonably a logger; one of my grandfathers was a rigger. But a teenage bout of rebellion seemed to have ruled that out. As for the creative arts I wasn’t a standout amazing kid, my creativity has always felt like a secret to me.

However, being creative doesn’t require being born a Mozart. Stubbornness and practicality have certainly played a role for me. Studies of grade school aged students have indicated they owed their academic success to such characteristics as curiosity, self-control and grit, even if they were of average intelligence. I don’t know how you feel, but I think that pretty well defines me.

Besides, failure seems to loom around every corner, especially for ambitions types like development workers. I think it’s totally rational for an aid worker, no matter how much experience they have, to go right down in confidence to almost zero when you sit down to start something truly new and innovative. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as it is kept in perspective.

One of the hardest things about getting what you hoped for in life is what comes next. For a very long time in my life all I wanted to do was become a Peace Corps volunteer. I imagined that was much better than anything else I could ever do and at times even doubt I could achieve that. Now here I am, I have realized my grand dream and yet still I am left wanting… Still I am left feeling like that word again… ‘a failure’.

This humble accomplishment seems to really hang over me, and it cast a very long shadow, sometimes I feel like I’ll never top it. How can I combat such a feeling? Keep moving I guess.

One must always strive to improve ones self. Reading journals, doing research, reaching out and networking, going to conferences all of these are tools to better myself and my creativity. It all contributes to her development; my personal development. I will put in my time just as so many before me have done and with that I will fail. I will fail epically and enthusiastically. Because without this failure I cannot grow and I can never succeed.

Plugging away with no guarantee of success is not advice people like to hear. Some people have to be educated that you have to be okay with failing. Regular people, normal people; naturally like to play it safe, but sometimes the most interesting ideas are found out on the fringes. For example, a primary school educator might want to focus on established methods of advancing reading, but what about trying to reach out to people who don’t read at all?

Knowing when to give up is fundamental. It doesn’t do anyone any good to beat a dead horse as the saying goes. But then how do we walk the fine line that lies between our failures and success? Giving up, or as they love to say on one of my favorite television shows, Mythbusters, “failure is always an option”. It is also an important part of the creative process, sooner or later, creators have to learn when an idea is going nowhere, but, that point is hard to identify. The error is more often in the opposite direction; not giving a new idea a sufficient chance for development. It is not easy to tell in advance which is going to pan out and which not. The uncertainty cuts both ways. I read once that Edison spent more time and money developing a means for separating iron ore than he did on the electric light bulb. The former was a dismal failure, the latter a brilliant success.

The difference is that drive and desire to make it work right up to the finish line. If you decide the work has merit, there comes a point when you take what you have. Eventually the time for major creativity recedes and you’re just trying to get to the finish line, refining, going over details. It can be exhausting. At that point, disgust and ennui sets in but we have a job to do. I can’t walk away. I have a desire to make it better that drives me.

Even within victory it is not the end. Because after it, it becomes time to do it all over again, to climb back on the high wire and start from scratch. Scary? Absolutely. Failure is always scary. But, it’s where development comes from the honor and praise is wonderful, but the joy truly comes from the freedom one feels in trying the unfamiliar.


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