What if failure were not success’s contrary but its birthpangs?
In a recent New York Times Magazine piece, Hugo Lindgren stresses that, more than talent or ingenuity, bringing a good idea to fruition takes perseverance through setbacks. This demands creators who know how to make space for the agonizing and humbling work of failure.
You might think that virtuosos and geniuses get where they are by failing less than the rest of us, but if anything, they seem to fail more profligately and exuberantly than others. Lindgren points to an interview in which Pixar’s John Lasseter insisted that all of their films start out as “the worst motion picture ever made” and only survive because people at Pixar “don't give up on the films.” Nobel Laureate Robert Lefkowitz knows about such productive failure: as he recently told Duke Magazine, barely 1 percent of his experiments yield successful results.
And consider this reflection from New Testament scholar C. Kavin Rowe – Jesus’ ministry ended in failure.
How can we distinguish Pixar’s and Lefkowitz’s productive failures from the meaningless squandering of time and talent that engulfs so many enterprises?
L. Gregory Jones and Kelly Gilmer hint at the difference in suggesting that at the heart of most “bad failure” lies a broken promise, whether in the form of outright ethical or financial impropriety or in the subtler form of gradual defection from an earlier animating vision. Innovation requires a commitment to an unknown future, a promise to co-workers and stakeholders that the purpose that joins them will endure, whether in failure or in success.
The partners in such an enterprise are freed to take time to learn the lessons failure has to teach and to re-narrate failure itself as a dramatic complication in the plotline of their undertaking, whether that be saving lives by unraveling cellular mysteries, or giving up one’s life for the mystery of the gospel.
Even the supposedly “secular” achievements of great innovators, as much as the heroic witness of the martyrs, are determined by a kind of dying for the sake of life -- creative virtue is cruciform.
How can your organization better embrace the cross-shaped logic of failing to succeed? What institutional changes might free your staff to take time for failure?