Southern Lights

Wikipedia has a very terse entry for failure that from my perspective as a connoisseur of failure is a total failure (which is both good and bad). The problem, however, is that the core definition used in this Wiki is pretty unsatisfying: In general, failure refers to the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective. It may be viewed as the opposite of success. For me, failure is such a deep mine of experience that one should expect considerably more depth than merely a few subsections devoted to “commercial failures” and “military disasters.” Although there are links to such phenomena as Murphy’s Law, which states, “things will go wrong in any given situation, if you give them a chance,” and fiasco, “a complete or humiliating failure,” nothing whatsoever is mentioned about failure as a design construct (or, for that matter, a design strategy). You’d think that design and failure would be a mother lode of a theme. Just look at how the world has been impacted by failed design—both positively and negatively. But that’s not all: It is surprising that a subsection entitled “learning from mistakes” or “profiting from failure” is nowhere to be found, unless, of course, the Wiki interface design is so inadequate that I couldn’t find it, which in either case is a failure—right?

For all the talk of the value of learning through failure, it is difficult to get the concept across if we continue to use the word “failure” in that sentence. People have a natural aversion to the term, and it is next to impossible to reclaim it for pedagogic purposes. For all the talk of the value of learning through failure, what we really mean is that it is valuable to do something multiple times, learning lessons from each attempt and applying those lessons to subsequent versions. This is a tough bargain, requiring both patience and diligence, and not a little thick skin.

For all the talk of the value of learning through failure, it is in the rewards of persistence where the true lessons lie, and the lessons of persistence can only be learned by those who persist—a kind of chicken-and-egg conundrum that can never be solved save by those who, you guessed it, can tolerate failure.

For all the talk of the value of learning through failure, it is really the notion of iteration that we should be concentrating on. It is the repeated doing of a thing that makes it better—not unlike learning any skill—but this is a difficult thing to get across to designers. They are pleased to get a thing done even once, never mind multiple times. For all the talk of the value of learning through failure, it is iteration that should be up on the marquee. But it is not so much the “teaching” of iteration that we’re talking about; rather, it is the appreciation of iteration, and this requires a stern but empathetic taskmaster, first external, but in the end, from deep inside.

For all the talk of the value of learning through failure, the quest for perfection is what we’re really talking about here. It is the doing and redoing of a thing that gets one close to the ideal—removing the extraneous and preserving the essential—ultimately driving something toward its elemental, rarefied state.

For all the talk of the value of learning through failure, it is the pursuit of success that fuels the fire. In trying to succeed at something, we are destined to miss the mark on occasion, but to say that every time we fall short of “success” we “fail” is like saying that every time we don’t win a baseball game we lose one. Wait, I guess that is saying that.

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