Screen shot 2012-10-05 at 11.44.21 AM Theory

Why Embracing Failure Makes Us Better Designers

Failure is unacceptable. Or so it seems in our success driven society. A meritocracy that has taught us to see and judge each other by our achievements. It has become a central aspect of our lives to be successful, or at least not to fail in what we do. But why is that? Is failure really something evil that we need to avoid by all means?

Personally, I think there is more to failure than the obvious. Failure also bears a lot of potential and chances for improvements and even greater success. If we can stop to project failure on to ourselves, and instead see failure in our actions and decisions, maybe we can learn to embrace failure as something good.

Let’s take a look at the general understanding of failure to start with. Then, I’d like to discuss a couple of examples to show the benefits of failure if we accept to have failed in our decisions, not as a person.

What is failure?

When we hear the word “failure”, our associations are most likely very negative. Failure is something we do not desire. Actually, it is the exact opposite of what we do desire very much: success. And by definition, this is very understandable. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, failure can be defined in three different ways:

  1. Failure is the lack of success
  2. Failure is the neglect or omission of expected or requires action.
  3. Failure is the action or state of not functioning.

All three of these definitions are negatively phrased and express an undesired situation. It even goes further, the Free dictionary describes “failure” also as:

  • The act or fact of failing to pass a course, test, or assignment.
  • The act or fact of becoming bankrupt or insolvent.
  • A person that is unsuccessful or disappointing

With all these negative associations, why should we embrace failure? Let’s take a look at the positive sides of a lack of achievement.

Why we should embrace failure

Failure ≠ mistakes

To start with, there is a very important difference between failure and mistakes. We make mistakes, which does not mean we fail. While our mistakes cause our actions to fail, we did not fail as a person. Looking at the definitions above, failure is the lack of some kind of achievement. This lack is most likely caused through a mistake, such as a wrong decision, or a wrong judgment, or putting your focus on the wrong aspect. However, this does not mean we fail to achieve our goal. We might have a setback, we might have to start over, but we can still succeed.

Let’s try to use the term “failure” either for failed actions caused by mistakes we made, or on a larger scale. We might have to make many mistakes and choose many different paths before we achieve our goals. We only fail if we don’t continue to look for these different paths. Only if we give up and accept a lack of achievement, we have failed as a person. So really, failure is a matter of endurance.

Success is relative. Failure is not.

This is a more practical aspect of failure. While success is relative, failure is absolute. What does that mean? It’s easy. If we do something, be it to implement a new marketing strategy, or improve the user experience of our website, success will always be relative. Statistics might go up and user feedback might be positive. We succeed by reaching our goals, but how do we know that we couldn’t do even better? Chances are good that we are contempt with a successful outcome, because that’s what we wanted, right? Yet, what we should do is push even further, trying to achieve even greater success.

Failure on the other hand is absolute. We set goals and if we don’t reach them, we don’t succeed. We need to keep pushing. It’s that simple.

In science, there is a very nice comparison to this phenomenon called “falsifiability”. It means that we can never prove a theory as right, only as wrong. While a theory has been proven to work for a hundred times, there is no guarantee that it still works the next time you test it. That is because you can never test a theory for all the possible conditions that might influence the outcome.

Failure is the one time you need to prove a theory wrong. You need to accept it, go back and identify the problem. Then start over and do it better.

Failure forces us to rethink

Not achieving a desired outcome forces us to rethink. We have to pause and identify the mistakes that caused the failure. Then we need to come up with new strategies, new ways to avoid making the same mistakes again. This iteration can be very valuable, as we don’t set with the very first idea, but we dig deeper, looking for more creative, for better solutions.

Again, the fact that failure is absolut doesn’t give us much of a choice. It’s no option to postpone a new approach because the current one has failed. This way we don’t run the risk of implementing a concept that needs further improvements. Even with partial success, we might be tempted to implement a concept with the intent to further improve it later on. Let’s be honest, what are the chances that we actually will?

Failure is convincing

Failure is also much more convincing that anything that still bears a chance of success. Imagine you work on a project and your client has very fixed ideas about it. However, you doubt the potential from the start. You try to convince them of a different, more promising alternative. Obviously without success and you go to work with their initial ideas.

Proving that the idea really does fail might be the only way to convince them to rethink. There might be both personal and political factors involved, forcing your client to hold on to even the smallest chance that their initial concept might work after all. As long as you can’t prove failure, there will be little room for you to think broader, or even experiment with new ideas.

Failure is human

Failure is human. Again, I refer to making mistakes that cause an idea or concept to fail, not the person. We all make mistakes and being able to admit that gives you the freedom and space to come up with solutions. Mistakes help us to identify ideas that don’t work, giving us the chance to come up with even better ones that do work.

Being able to admit that you are wrong and being open for feedback are very positive characteristics. They not only increase your level of trust and credibility, but they also strengthen your team and empower your team members to share their thoughts and possibly raise objections. At the end of the day, you will be much more productive and more creative with a team on your side than on your own.

Conclusion

So what’s the conclusion? Even though we associate failure with a lot of negative things, it’s not that bad. Actually we could benefit from failure if we learn that there is a difference between failure and making mistakes.

We are humans and as humans we make mistake. Mistakes help us to learn and to get better at whatever we do. If we make mistakes, our decisions and actions might fail. So what? We get the chance to try again and find even better solutions. Only if we accept a lack of achievement and if we give up trying, we fail as a person.

What are your experiences with failure? Let us know in the comments what failure means to you, or if you see any other benefits that come from failure.

One comment

  1. David Rozando

    “failure is a matter of endurance” I really like this one. Thanks for this inspiring article

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