Failing better means trying and trying again, but with a difference.
March 13, 2018
7 min read
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Excerpted from HOW WE WORK. Copyright © 2018 by Leah Weiss. Reprinted with permission from Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” — Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett
At some point in recent history, this bleak and somewhat obscure line from existentialist playwright Samuel Beckett became the motto of the new entrepreneurialism. It isn’t clear if it was business mogul Richard Branson, self-help author Tim Ferriss, tennis pro Stanislas Wawrinka (who has “Fail Better” tattooed on his arm), or someone else who first adopted the term, but somewhere along the line the business crowd embraced it. Perhaps because “failure” sounds grander than “mistake.” Perhaps because so many startups that failed out of the gate went on to become household names. In any event, this Beckett prose piece became a popular catchphrase, first in the tech world and now in just about every sector.
People have always made mistakes and sometimes tried to learn from them, but the entrepreneurial embrace of the “fail better” philosophy suddenly put defeat on a pedestal, making it a cause for celebration.
An abundance of anecdotes and examples was found to affirm this ethos: Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade. Ben Franklin’s inventions didn’t always work. Early in her career as a television reporter, Oprah Winfrey was fired. History is full of persevering heroes who failed on the way to success.
In a recent article he posted to LinkedIn, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen wrote that Microsoft might not exist if he and Bill Gates hadn’t failed with their first company (a traffic data analyzing project called, naturally, Traf-O-Data). “While Traf-O-Data was technically a business failure,” Allen wrote, “the understanding of microprocessors we absorbed was crucial to our future success. And the emulator I wrote to program it gave us a huge head start over anyone else writing code at the time. If it hadn’t been for our Traf-O-Data venture, and if it hadn’t been for all that time spent on UW computers, you could argue that Microsoft might not have happened. I hope the lesson is that there are few true dead ends in computer science. Sometimes taking a step in one direction positions you to push ahead in another one.”
As “fail better” achieved meme status in Silicon Valley, where it captured the spirit of the aggressive optimism and “disruptive” thinking beloved by startup business culture, the irony of the expression’s original and famously pessimistic coiner, Samuel Beckett, was lost on most. In the backlash, however, some nonliterary critics dismissed “fail better” as wishful or even reckless thinking. Mindfulness acknowledges both these points of view. From a Buddhist perspective, “failing better” means acknowledging human imperfection and accepting that failure is part of the learning process — if we give people room to learn. Failing better means trying and trying again, but with a difference. Reflection makes the difference, and not just in Silicon Valley.
Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino has researched the role of reflection in the workplace and found that it is worth the time not only in the wisdom it generates but also in the productivity that emerges. One of her studies, which she conducted at the IT firm Wipro in Bangalore, India, examined how providing structure for reflection and for sharing about work impacted follow-up on various tasks. The researchers studied several groups of employees in their initial weeks of training for a particular customer account and divided them into three groups: the control group, the reflection group and the sharing group.
In the reflection group, on the sixth through the sixteenth days of training, workers spent the last 15 minutes of each day writing and reflecting on the lessons they had learned that day. Participants in the sharing group did the same, but spent an additional five minutes explaining their notes to a fellow trainee. Those in the control group just kept working at the end of the day and did not receive additional training.
Over the course of one month, workers in both the reflection and sharing groups performed significantly better than those in the control group. On average, the reflection group increased its performance on the final training test by 22.8 percent as compared to the control group. The sharing group performed 25 percent better on the test than the control group, about the same increase as for the reflection group. In addition, the participants who had been put in the reflection group (rather than the practice group) “improved their likelihood of being in the top-rated category of all trainees by 19.1 percent.” The same researchers also studied whether people appreciate the power of reflection, and they learned that when given the choice, 210 out of 256 participants opted to get more experience and only 18 percent chose to have reflection time. Reflection is clearly valuable but it isn’t necessarily valued.
Just like pausing before we jump into something (which is what we do when we set our intentions), pausing after we have jumped into something takes only a moment, but has a profound impact. We pause not to slow down, necessarily, but to reperceive our thoughts, emotions and context with fresh perspective. Practice makes perfect, perhaps, but in practice we also see how far from perfect we are. Similarly, when we try to be more compassionate, toward others or ourselves, we also notice how we’re not; and when we care about suffering in the workplace, we realize that we often don’t know how to make things better. It’s like the physical assessment you have with a trainer when you first join a gym, testing your body to see where it is weak, as part of the process of building strength. Physical, emotional and mental learning all depend on nonjudgmental pauses for realistic self-appraisal, re-mindfulness of our intentions and rededication to our purpose. Sometimes what we see in these moments isn’t what we’d hoped for. But, instead of viewing our failures as evidence that we suck at our jobs or that we are worthless as people, we can choose to approach them as evidence that we are engaging, that we are working at it and that we will get there.
With all the talk of embracing failure, there is less talk in corporate culture of reflection, but that’s just what Severin Schwan, CEO of biotech giant Roche, touched on in a 2014 interview with Reuters entitled “For Roche’s CEO, Celebrating Failure Is the Key to Success.” In the piece, he emphasizes the need to foster acceptance of failure as a necessary part of innovation. “We need a culture where people take risks[,] because if you don’t take risks, you won’t have breakthrough innovation,” he said. But, he also went on to suggest that it’s important for managers to praise people for the nine times they fail, not just the one time they succeed. Schwan even takes his direct reports out to lunch to celebrate their failures. Rituals like this offer an opportunity for reflection.
The person who encouraged me to attend my first-ever meditation retreat, a mentor I had known since childhood, told me that transitions were the times of the day to pay the most attention to, for example, when you are moving from morning to afternoon, from one project to another, or from work to home. She told me not to think of the cushion part of meditation as the main event but, instead, to notice the thoughts and habits that come up when we’re not meditating. When we pay attention to the transitions, the spaces in between become their own instruction.