The Power of Failure

MottoI usually talk about failure in the context of teaching courses where I am expliciting helping students learn from failure.   A student writes a program that doesn’t work and rather than come to their rescue, I have them struggle through the debugging process.  Trial and error is a real thing in my classes and my students talk about it frequently.

Recently, I’ve been applying the idea a little more broadly, in relation to people’s work.  I work in an environment where we’re all pretty dedicated to achieving success, where we don’t want to let each other or our students and community down.  And that means that sometimes, we step up and pick up the pieces for each other without being asked.  It’s a really nice thing to see and it does usually mean that things don’t fall through the cracks.

But occasionally, someone will be trying to support someone’s work or they’ll pick up the ball for them and the person they’re helping is still not picking up their part of the deal.  And the person helping can see the failure coming, and they want like hell to make sure the failure doesn’t happen.  And I’ve had to say to the people helping, “You’re going to have to let them fail.”

We don’t work for NASA, so failure for us is mostly an inconvenience.   The reason I suggest to people that they let their colleagues fail is that they, and their supervisors and broader community, need to see that the problem exists, that there even is a failure point.  Otherwise, it won’t ever get fixed at the source.  Saying, “The sky is falling.  The sky is falling.”  And then it doesn’t because someone else props it up makes the issue look nonexistent.  The sky is still falling, but now no one can see it.

Also, the people propping up the sky start to get frustrated that they’re propping up the sky when it’s not their job to prop up the sky.  Resentment starts to build and working relationships that were solid before start to fray.  And then, guess what, more failure starts to happen.

Failure is a powerful thing, but most people are afraid of it.  They’re afraid to fail because they’ll lose their jobs or they’ll be embarrassed or they’ll just feel incompetent.  I have a huge fear of failure, I get it.  It’s why I think about it quite a bit.

Tim Burke’s recent post on the upcoming administration reminded me of these thoughts I’d been having about failure at this micro level, and how sometimes you have to step back and just let the failure happen.  He argues we have to do this at the macro level.  Whatever happens is going to happen and some of it is probably going to be very bad, especially bad for certain pockets of people.  And it’s going to be hard not to step in and make sure the very bad doesn’t happen.

Two things we have to do, according to Tim.  One, solidify our stance and quit worrying about small differences among us.  Two, keep pointing out the failure of those in power.  Both of these are harder than they sound.  Liberals have a tendency to recognize and point out small differences and make those differences deal-breakers for working together.  And the second action is going to be exhausting.  Already on day one and day two, we’ve had to point out untruths.  And that’s just the surface.  It’s going to get more exhausting when substantial work starts to get done (or not done).  It means phone calls and demonstrations and hard work on the ground, behind the scenes, so that, as Tim says, we’ll be ready to step in when the time comes.

It actually breaks my heart a little to think that this is the way things have to go. Having felt it on the micro level, I’m struggling to gage how it will feel on the macro level.  We’re in for a world of hurt.