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Failing Your Way To Greatness


Earlier in my career, I was at an all-hands division meeting where we were reviewing the quarterly performance of the division and at least some of it was not good. The division manager, with whom I had never interacted, out of frustration asked the hypothetical to the group during an all-hands meeting: “Do you wake up every day asking yourself how you are going to fail today?”

This comment was of course met with outrage, endless office chatter, then a running joke. The message was clear. We as individuals and anything good we had achieved would all be lumped together and billed as failure. 

Now failure is a popular topic. There are many articles and books about the benefits of an environment that allows for failure: it provides an opportunity for learning, innovation can’t happen without failure, and you need to push your boundaries and discover limits.

I’ve been seeing this topic pop up again and again (there’s even another E84 blog post about it!) and throughout my reading I’ve been pondering what to actually do with all this information. How we do we apply it? What is the goal?

In his book Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull of Pixar fame describes the goal as “to uncouple fear and failure— to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts”.

So then, how do we push a cultural shift to uncouple fear and failure?

I think the first thing is to normalize failure and talk about it. Attending the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) summer meeting, there was a session called Epic Fails in Earth Science Informatics: learning from the past to do better in the future.

One thing discussed in this session was that when we fail we want to forget about it and not talk about it, but that is the opposite of what we should be doing. In the science world there’s a positive results bias, where researchers don’t publish negative results.

Humans are wired to react negatively to failure and assign blame. Failing is a bad feeling and it sucks, but it’s what we do after that initial feeling that matters.

I fail and beat myself up all. the. time. After many meetings, especially team retrospectives, I go through a mini retrospective in my head. Did I say too much? Did I say enough? Was I too direct? (yes). Was I productive or defensive?

Something I’ve been doing recently is bringing some of my challenges to my manager, other managers, and my management coach. It feels a bit like I’m telling these people “why I suck as a manager”, which on first instinct is a bit questionable, but it’s important to me to share my shortcomings so that I can learn and hopefully others can learn from me. The perspective and openness that I get from others has been invaluable.

I want to create safe places where others can go to admit failure, talk through their shortcomings and be completely supported. I would like to be an example of practicing humility, which I believe is an important trait for succeeding at failure.

So, yes, I do wake up every day asking myself how am I going to fail today and to paraphrase Alex Toussaint, I’m ready to fail my way to greatness.

Lauren Frederick

Chief Technology Officer