Most startups fail. However many entrepreneurs still overestimate the chances of success – and the cost of failure.
This interesting piece front the Guardian focusses on the current reification of ‘failure’ (as it relates to start-ups). The myth of ‘failure’ remains alluring in certain circles, as though you have earned the right to succeed only if you’ve amounted a number of failed enterprises in your past. The problem with the ‘failure’ myth is that it doesn’t account for the emotional fall out of plugging away.
People will do a lot of irrational things to avoid losing even if it’s to their detriment. You push and push and exhaust yourself.
If we’re going to pay serious attention to failure as an important learning experience then we also have to pay attention to how expectations are set up in the first place….and, perhaps more importantly, the emotional cost of desire, satisfaction, disappointment and failure. Not all failures lead to success. Not all success is built on the back of failure. Perhaps its time to adopt the reality principle and address not only the fear of failure but the stress of pretending that everything is going well when it’s not.
I was at a very interesting lecture by Constance Deveraux in UCD recently during which the issue of ‘excellence’ (as it related to the arts) was raised.
Achieving excellence has become a mainstream indicator of success and, a primary criterion by which the arts are valued and funded. One person commented that the argument for the intrinsic value of the arts had been lost…primarily, he believed, because of the attachment to quantitative indicators of success such as audience numbers, impact on social issues etc.
On reflection, I believe one of the reasons the intrinsic value argument may have been lost is because of the ‘excellence’ argument. In order to be excellent a work or an artist or anybody must in some respects be exclusive. In attaching itself to ‘excellence’ as an indicator the arts have reinforced the argument that to be excellent means to be exclusive. If the arts are going to win the intrinsic argument then the arts need to be ‘ordinary’ so ordinary, that they are taken for granted (in a good way) as an embedded part of our day to day activity.
The idea of exclusivity and excellence and ‘being the best’ sets us all up for failure and disappointment. What ever happened to ‘good enough’ as something to strive for?
I recently finished reading Adam Phillips’ new book Becoming Freud. It’s ostensibly a ‘biography’ of Freud but Phillips begins by referencing Freud’s ambivalence about the whole idea of biography; he was sceptical and distrusting of the idea of biography even though he went on to become a wonderful biographer himself! Phillips weaves back and forth between Freud’s story and that of psychoanalysis and in many respects, this is a biography of Freud’s discoveries rather than a fact based description of his life.
What’s interesting also is that the book stops at Freud’s 50th birthday – after Freud had written his five major works and before the profession of psychoanalysis became organised. Phillips invites us to speculate what might have happened to that profession had Freud died at 50 (if indeed, there would have been a ‘profession’ at all).
It’s a beautifully written and artful exploration of the man and his work.
International aid groups make the same mistakes over and over again. At TEDxYYC David Damberger uses his own engineering failure in India to call for the development sector to publicly admit, analyze, and learn from their missteps.
Oh so much to learn from this sort talk from David Damberger….Organisations defend so rigorously against failure (or admitting it at least). Its worth speculating about what our systems might be like if we admitted to being ‘ordinary’ rather than aiming for spectacular results which very often fail. Damberger comes up with some interesting practical suggestions for how failure can be marshalled in the service of learning and cites the Engineers without Borders annual failure report. I would like to suggest that we need new emotional leadership in organizations. What do I mean? A type of leadership that sees emotion as a core element of organising. Emotion is systemically manufactured and individually felt. It is as much a part of the world of work as the physical or tangible products that are made. A new type of leadership would put emotion back where it belongs at the hear of organizing and would also challenge the fear that it is personal, irrational, negative and disruptive.
If you feel like reading about failure head over here to Admitting Failure. The site is full of fascinating stories of ‘failure’ and the learning they inspired.
I keep returning to this Benjamin Zander TED talk in which he uses Chopin to demonstrate the essential characteristics of leadership. Apart from being passionate about your subject or area of work, you also need to believe that you can inspire others to tap into their own passions too. It’s this unfailing sense of possibility that distinguishes good leaders from not-so-good leaders. Zander uses the music of Chopin to demonstrate….Classical music is perpetually associated with the middle-class and is perceived to be an ‘elite’ art form so it’s apt that Zander should take his passion and try to persuade his audience that Chopin is worth listening to. And he succeeds beautifully. Not by lecturing or hectoring or providing a powerpoint presentation on the merits and de-merits. But by meeting people on an emotional level. Zander allows us to meet him and his passion in a deeply human way. He also meets his audience (some of whom will be interested in classical music, most of whom won’t) and fails to patronize or persuade. He then invites them to think of a loved one no longer here … and then he allows the music to do the rest. I imagine that for each audience member Chopin’s music provides a very different emotional experience. In this sense each individual creates and curates their own experience from their own life story using Chopin as a tool. As a result I imagine many of those ‘unpersuaded’ by the merits of Chopin will take a risk to listen once again.
Zander’s strategy is so powerful in its simplicity.
Meet people where they are
Allow others to see your passion
Connect with others around their passions and interests
Extend an invitation to join
Get out of the way
It’s a talk I come back to again and again to remind me that sometimes, getting out of the way and allowing people to do their own work is the best type of consultancy around. Enjoy.
Your emotions are the lens through which we look at the world. You can’t look round your emotions, you have to look through them.
This interview with Turner award winner Grayson Perry makes for interesting reading. I’ve been impressed with his channel 4 series In the Best Possible Taste in which he interrogates the relationship between class and taste (the programs are available to view on Channel 4 OD here). In particular, I’ve admired his capacity to move fluidly between thinking, feeling and making. It’s great to see a practitioner at the top of their game talking about the importance of emotion (their own and others’) as a core component of the creative process. Perry has been awarded a two year contract from Channel 4 to make more work – I’m looking forward to seeing how he approaches the documentary medium as another art space.
I heard the two men talking about a third old man who had recently died. One of them said, “I was visiting him at his home. He started to tell me an amazing story about something that had happened to him when he was young. But it was a long story. Night came, and we decided that I should come back the next day to hear the rest. But when I arrived, he was dead.”
The man fell silent. I decided not to leave that bench until I heard how the other man would respond to what he’d heard. I had an instinctive feeling that it would prove to be important.
Finally he, too, spoke.
“That’s not a good way to die — before you’ve told the end of your story.”
Lovely piece from Henning Mankell in the New York Times about the art of listening
So if I am right that we are storytelling creatures, and as long as we permit ourselves to be quiet for a while now and then, the eternal narrative will continue.
Many words will be written on the wind and the sand, or end up in some obscure digital vault. But the storytelling will go on until the last human being stops listening. Then we can send the great chronicle of humanity out into the endless universe.
Who knows? Maybe someone is out there, willing to listen …
So now there is research to confirm what many have always known – our reaction to art is irrational. We really don’t know what we’re looking at and we want to believe that what we are seeing is the genuine article.
This raises all kinds of fascinating questions – like, does it matter if it’s ‘real’ or not if we get enjoyment from it? What is the power of the institution or the curator in determining how we view art? etc etc. The same can be said of promises made in business or by consultants. But perhaps more interestingly (for me) it raises questions about any rational only approach to understanding or meaning making. If we discount the irrational, the emotional and the unconscious then there’s a swathe of intelligence extruded from the conversation…must do more thinking/musing on this.