When have we failed?

“Unless you’re hopelessly narcissistic, you’ve probably referred to yourself as a failure at one time or another” so began an excellent short book* I was reading on holiday in La Rochelle in France recently. The book got me thinking about our approach to failure and how in our highly controlled environment, we are pressurised to play it safe. All too often, not making a mistake is seen as more important than making a success of something. Avoiding mistakes by not taking risks may avoid our boss getting angry towards us but equally it is unlikely to result in our boss saying “Wow, you are amazingly brilliant!”

Being adventurous means that sometimes things don’t work out but other times they do, or do in unexpected ways. When Apple released the Newton in 1993 to much fanfare, it was ridiculed as expensive, extravagant and unnecessary but few who mocked realised it was a forerunner to the smartphone and tablet revolution.

When Professor Wilson Greatbatch was building a device to record heart rhythms he inserted the wrong electrical resistor and watched as the devise pulsed, stopped and pulsed again – like a heart. The pacemaker was a screw-up that ultimately saved millions of lives.

Confederate Colonel John Pemberton, who was wounded in the American Civil War and became addicted to morphine, began a quest to find a substitute for the problematic drug. The result was Coca-Cola.

Are we brave enough to step away from the crowd?

All too often in our risk averse blame culture, we are tempted to do nothing as that way we can’t be wrong, criticised, sued etc. We follow the crowd to mediocrity. Following rules without thinking can give rise to the absurd reality of hospital patients not being allowed out of bed in case they fall (despite having been assessed as fine by an occupational therapist on another ward), when staying in bed will definitely hasten their demise; or a patient being given excessive food intake otherwise their human rights are breached. Both true instances! We like being the herd. We like to conform. Are we brave enough to be different?

But the law of unintended consequences may haunt us

But in our desire to progress and succeed, we must remember that the law of unintended consequences is never far away. All too often, with the best will in the world, a seemingly good idea can turn sour. So in the midst of apparent success, we can be in failure. Looking at a good idea from the other end of the telescope is effort never wasted.

The euro seemed such a good idea when it was dreamt up. But as Greece seeks to recover from the financial crisis, they are still trying to work out how joining the euro benefitted them. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, sees the debt crisis as a Greek tragedy. According to Varoufakis, the Greek crisis came about in part because the Greeks were made to take the pain of sorting out the mess in their economy without their own central bank being able to help by devaluing their currency. He said “This is precisely the crux of the problem. We have a monetary union, but we don’t have a political union and we don’t have a moral union.” The Greeks and the rest of the Europeans were not all in it together. “We created the common currency, but did not create everything else which is necessary to make the common currency a place of shared prosperity,” he said. One of the current challenges western economies face today is moving away from cheap money which has been used to overcome the debt crisis that was itself caused by cheap money!

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”  Winston Churchill

As the UK Government navigates a path through Brexit, there is a real danger that we will end up with a fudge that ultimately pleases no one. History tells us that empires built on fudge eventually collapse, just as Tom and Jerry in mid-air cannot stay floating in mid-air indefinitely! Gravity eventually catches up with them. Perhaps the answer to Brexit, is not to be found in leaving the EU as painlessly as possible but encouraging other nations to follow us into something new and innovative?

But just as the answer to the most awful abuse scandals confronting the church is unlikely to come from central church structures (otherwise they would have been found long ago), so the European answer may need to be found from outside the EU itself.

Balancing our doubt with strong self-belief

In looking forward though we have a balancing act to perform. We are all taught to be confident, and it is true that if you think you can, you can and if you think you can’t, you can’t. But when it comes to creativity, insecurity can be our greatest friend. The greatest ideas are often germinated through crippling insecurity. Great ideas come from doubting them, interrogating them, and allowing other possibilities to take root. It is here that innovation can come about. By looking at problems from different perspectives, with different eyes, and making unlikely connections we can have our own eureka moment!

And our greatest mistake was…?

There are some things that are more painful than mistakes and failure. One of them is not to make the effort to find out whether it is possible for us to succeed. In her ground-breaking book, “The Five Top Regrets of the Dying”, Bronnie Ware who spent a great many hours caring for people in the final stages of their lives reveals that the regrets of most of those with whom she spoke with, had to do with things that they didn’t do, chances that they didn’t take, opportunities that they didn’t accept, rather than things that they had done that they wished they hadn’t.

So perhaps the only mistake we should try to avoid making is the mistake of not trying to succeed however foolhardy the endeavour we are contemplating may be. And who knows? Something remarkable, unexpected and game changing might result!


* Failed It! Eric Kessels Phaidon 2016

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