It should be okay to fail

A cynical take of mine is that no one wants to hear about what you’re doing unless you’re already successful at it. People take comfort in knowing that other people fail too, but it’s intensely uncomfortable to actually witness failure happening. A comedian bombing a set, a violinist butchering an audition, a politician stumbling through a speech – as an onlooker it’s hard not to cringe.

But for the person in the spotlight…it’s not only unavoidable to never fail, but crucial that they take the risk of failing if it means getting better. They can practice in secret to reduce the scrutiny and pressure on them, but most people’s dreams involve sharing projects and ideas with other people. Usually, there’s no getting around the fact that to reach excellence you have to risk failing in public, in front of people who hate seeing others fail in public. 🙂

What can be done to make that less painful? Perhaps building cultures that encourage people to (sensibly) risk failing in pursuit of great things.

To contribute to a culture where failure is okay, you do need to be able to admit to failure. If everyone tries to do what’s optimal for just themselves, they are likely to hide their own failures, making it even more taboo in general to talk openly and kindly about failing. Even implying that you are capable of failing could feel dangerous. Do you think any engineer would talk candidly about what went wrong during a service outage if they thought their company might blame them for it? I imagine blameless postmortems arose because focusing on systemic problems was more effective than finding scapegoats.

Reacting gracefully to someone else’s failures is also important. It’s easy to point and laugh. It’s more difficult but also valuable to keep a straight face and deliver criticism without contempt. What I try to remember is: in the people around me, do I want to select for ability to withstand ridicule, or ability to build things we care about? They’re not mutually exclusive, but one is much more important than the other. In college I’d sometimes get frustrated at mistakes my coding project partners would make, but soon realized that was unproductive. I knew we were good enough together to succeed eventually and valued my relationship with them, so it was better to say less and look forward. I made plenty of my own mistakes, after all…

Viewers and commenters and bystanders have immense sway over how everyone feels about themselves. If we are each better audience members, it’s better for everyone.