The failure system

Brian Frank riffs on yesterday’s post on the license to fail and argues that our standard for success should not be perfection but instead “generativity”:

. . . instead of evaluating things on how well they accord with preconceived models and assumptions, let’s evaluate things by looking at how many unexpected new opportunities they generate.

Failure breaks things open and allows us to remix the pieces in different ways. If we don’t do this from time-to-time — if we just keep accumulating more mass onto the same framework — eventually it gets too bulky and falls on our heads.

There are lots of interesting nuggets of ideas in his rambling on the idea. Frank illustrates his point talking about the progression of scientific theory from Newton to quantum and Einstein: “But now it’s becoming more difficult to stand on Newton’s shoulders. His ideas aren’t as generative anymore; they perpetuate more than they generate.” I don’t know enough there to agree or disagree; I see Frank searching for a metaphor for what I’ve been calling beta-think or what I’ve been arguing with newspaper people about finding opportunities wherever they see problems:

Much of the new science — like the new economy — is not about layering subsequent successes on top of each other, but they are generative in the sense that they open up new fields to explore. They are adventures that could very likely fail to prove their original hypotheses but can’t fail to generate new ideas and insights.

Next Frank tries his worldview on human psychology as he also challenges perfection as the goal:

Even looking at the people who hold perfection in high esteem, it isn’t perfection itself that motivates them, it’s the challenge of pursuing it — and the sneaking uncertainty that they can’t attain it: it’s a dare….

If you take the uncertainty and randomness and genuine risk out of life (as in, risking oneself, not just other people’s money) you take the life out of life…

So why would we perpetuate organizations, rules, and systems that are based on the fundamental assumption that randomness and uncertainty can be mechanized and ordered into a irrelevance?

He and I agree that this effort at order comes out of the industrial age: the need and drive to mechanize and systematize everything to do because that’s what the means of mass production and distribution demanded. In WWGD?, I argue that we are leaving that age and entering an economy and society built on abundance and knowledge (which, to return to Frank’s point, comes when you expand past old assumptions: when you generate new ideas). He concludes:

The society that embraces uncertainty, nurtures a love for it (i.e. a love of learning) and develops institutions that thrive because of randomness rather than despite it, will eventually have the most success, generation-by-generation.

: Howard Weaver also responds to my post, riffing on failure and perfection in cultures, industries, and economies:

In private life – business and commerce, the academy, creative endeavors – Jeff’s point is fundamentally applicable. I was lucky enough to be taught as a young editor periodically to ask the folks I worked with, “When was the last time you made a good mistake?”

I’d stress, of course, that a “good mistake” didn’t involve coming in drunk and misspelling all the names. A good mistake was one where we learned something we couldn’t have learned otherwise, where we were better off afterward for what we learned, where we had a clearer vision of what to try next.

Weaver agrees with Craig Newmark on British failurephobia and that makes me finally come up with a theory for what I’ve observed from my Guardian colleagues in political and media news in the U.K.: I call it the off-with-their-heads reflex that comes whenever a TV exec or a government minister or someone under them messes up. We see moments of that in America, of course. But we need to focus less on the mistake – the fall from perfection – and more on the question of whether the mistake is fixed and the lesson learned; if so, then the experience and the person may be valuable; if not, fine, behead them.

: LATER: There’s an interesting discussion about the beta life at the Business Innovation Factory.

  • John Caddell


    These are two great posts. I really subscribe to the thinking that trying and failing is essential to innovation. Nature works this way–more than 99% of all species that have ever existed are extinct.

    One obstacle to tolerating failure is the culture we’ve created within our schools. 100% perfection is the objective, instead of an environment of challenge and experimentation. As a result, students are incented to focus on grade achievement rather than learning.

    When these kids get into the real world, where success is a much grayer area, they are unprepared to deal with failure. In some cases they never learn. This contributes to the risk-averse culture we have in our companies and governments.

    I started a site, called The Mistake Bank (, where people share stories of mistakes and failures they’ve learned from, as a way to contribute to the learning of others and to destigmatizing what Paul Iske calls the “brilliant failure.”

    regards, John

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  • Tom Wolper

    I have this addition to make about the culture of perfection. It encourages lying. Think about a job interview where you, the applicant, are being asked about previous experience. If you admit past failures, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. If you lie about your experience in a way the interviewer wouldn’t be bothered to check you erase the disadvantage. The same sort of thing applies during a job review with a promotion on the line. Would you rather talk about what you learned from your failures or deny that you’ve ever failed.

  • Brian Frank

    Thanks for editing my longish brainstorm.

    I hope I didn’t go too far-out. I took a couple of risks — trying to demonstrate as much as explain my case. We don’t quite have the right vocabulary for this yet.

    And you got it exactly right: I’m searching for metaphors… rattling the old iron cage a little.

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