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The Art of Failure

This is an occasional address I gave at the UNSW graduation ceremony on 1 April 2011. 

Pro-Chancellor, Deans, colleagues, distinguished guests, and new graduates – I am truly honoured to be invited to speak at this graduation ceremony. This is a wonderful occasion to celebrate your achievements—many of you have worked hard for years to get to where you are and I congratulate you wholeheartedly on your success.

But while we’re focusing on success today, I’d like to spend a few minutes to talk about failure and our culture’s fear of failure.

Earlier this year you may have heard about an American professor Amy Chua and her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The book is about Chua’s extreme parenting method which she thinks is responsible for her children’s success. I haven’t read the book and I’m sure that it’s a caricature about how a Chinese mother brings up children.

For example, to quote from an excerpt of the book, ‘the Chinese mother believes that …(1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public…’ and, get this, ‘(6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold’.

When I first heard of this, I thought it was bizarre. But then I suddenly remembered this young Chinese Canadian mother I used to know in the 1980s who banned her children from watching The Simpsons. The reason? She doesn’t want them to grow up to be like Bart Simpson—an underachiever and proud of it! That would be every Chinese mother’s nightmare.

So here I am, a Chinese Australian and a mother, telling you that on this wonderful occasion celebrating success, we should talk about failure.  You must be thinking right now that I must be out of my mind.

But what I’m saying is not just a reaction to our cultural obsession with success. I really believe that, at a time of success, we should remember the benefits of failures. Most successful careers come out of successful failures—scientists make path-breaking discoveries after years of failed experiments; engineers design wonderful machines after discarding many unworkable models; authors go through dozens of drafts before finding the right words for their novels.

Let’s not denigrate failures—let’s give thanks to failures, because they are our best teachers. It is through going down the wrong alleys that we find our path to success.

A few years ago I was asked to speak at a Business/Higher Education Summit about what new skills will be needed in 2020 and beyond. My paper was about ‘The Necessity of Creativity’. In that paper I argued that learning to be creative is not a luxury, but a necessity, for individuals as well as organisations. This is because the world is changing faster than ever. Computer technologies have transformed how we work and how we communicate. The global financial crisis has destabilised economies. Environmental and security concerns are affecting our everyday lives. Very few people and organisations can afford to stand still, and yet most of us and our institutions are not well equipped to meet the challenge of a changing world.

Many of our workplaces tend to over-emphasise productivity at the expense of creativity and innovation. As the renowned physicist David Bohm wrote many years ago, in order to be creative and original, a person must be able to try something new without being afraid of making mistakes (Bohm 1996:5). Researchers have highlighted the importance of organisational culture for engendering creativity. They suggest that freedom to experiment and constant encouragement are two factors that can make a difference to an organisation’s creativity (Jarvie 1981).

As a social scientist, I’ve spent the last 15 years studying police and police culture. It is well known that in spite of many attempts at reform, police forces are still predominantly punitive bureaucracies. Mistakes are covered up because those who make mistakes are punished.

The organisational theorist Edwin Schein (1985) has written about two different ways of learning in organisations the first is problem solving learning and the second is anxiety avoidance learning.

Problem solving learning is positive and rewarding; it encourages exploration, imagination, and experimentation, but anxiety avoidance learning is negative and defensive; it is ‘one-trial learning’, as long as something works, you repeat it indefinitely rather than try out something new. Most police officers are socialised into a culture that fears mistakes – they know that with literally hundreds of rules in the rule book, the ‘boss’ can get at them at every turn. So, many officers have worked out that the best strategy to survive is to keep your head down, don’t make waves, do as little as possible, and above all, cover your arse.

Sadly, an organisation that punishes mistakes also discourages innovation.

Imagine if this fear of errors were to be shared by other professions. Artists would stop sketching if every mark they make must be perfect.  Authors would be terrified of writing if every word has to be right the first time. Scientists would think twice before conducting an experiment if each trial has to be successful. This is plainly absurd. Surely it’s not failures or mistakes that we need to worry about, it is how we learn from them and get over them that matters.

And yet, we live in a culture where success is paramount: the only losers we celebrate are those who have lost kilograms of fat.

Ironically, management theorists are now recognising the importance of ‘play’ at work for individual as well as organisational performance (Dodgson 2011). Playing involves being free, having fun and stepping outside of real life. Real play is not about making profit, impressing your boss, or producing an outcome. It does not worry about mistakes. The only failure in play is not fully engaging in its playfulness. To include play in work seems to make no sense – and yet, for organisations that strive for new ideas and innovations, play in the form of exploration, modelling, prototyping, experimentation, or just plain tinkering is precisely what is needed to stimulate creativity and produce innovative products.  Not every workplace can be like Google, but wouldn’t it be great if they were?

So as you walk out of this university, as you enter the wonderful world of work, I want you to remember what one of my art teachers told me many years ago: make your first 10,000 mistakes as soon as you can and learn from them!

Your university education has given you new eyes to see the world, new words to describe the world, and new tools to change the world. It has given you a reference point, a framework, a solid base, to further explore problems and issues that intrigue you. From here on, you may find your dream job, or you may not. You may enter an exciting new venture, or you may spend a lot of time doing unexciting things. There is no guarantee that you will always succeed, but if you lose the fear of failures, if you appreciate the benefits of mistakes, if you allow yourself the freedom of play, you will always be a winner.

References:
Bohm, D (2004) On Creativity. London and New York: Routledge.
Jarvie, I C (1981) ‘The rationality of creativity’ in D Dutton and M Krausz (eds) The concept of creativity in science and art.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Schein, E (1985) Organizational Culture and Leadership.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Dodgson, Mark (2011) ‘Creativity and Innovation Management: Play’s the Thing’ in Leon Mann and Janet Chan (eds) Creativity and Innovation in Business and Beyond: Social science perspectives and policy implications.  New York: Routledge.
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Welcome to my blog. There are many ways to think about our world, our history, our biographies. I see a lot of anger, sadness, cynicism around me and yet there is also a great deal of kindness, generosity and optimism in the world. Some of us have more control over our life chances than others. We can’t always change the world, but let’s do what we can to make this a better place for our children and their children.