Education & School · Organizational Change & Development

Reclaim Failure, Use it as Fuel

“That night our phone call came. They rejected us.” – Alexis Ohanian on one of his early startup efforts.

Enjoying a coffee in the lobby of the surprising ALoft Minneapolis I was suddenly forced to vandalism.  Or maybe it was robbery, it’s hard to say.  But I ripped a page out of the complimentary issue of USA Today sitting innocently next to the bar and jammed it in my pocket, avoiding eye contact with the front desk.  This article had my mind racing with connections.

Written by 30 year-old Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian, the clipping was titled “Millennials Turn Failure Into Fuel“.  The title reminded me of what the improv theater The Brave New Workshop says improvisation can teach us about incorporating imagination and change in any organization: Perceive Change as Fuel(from their book “Innovation at the Speed of Laughter: The 8 secrets to world class idea generation“.  This was idea #8.)  But there was one specific thing that Ohanian DID in the face of failure that excited me.

Ohanian described the pitfalls he and Reddit Co-Founder Steve Huffman found in the process of finding support for some early business ideas.  When it came to the idea for Reddit – one that was confronted with plenty of naysaying – he took each piece of criticism, such as “you are a rounding error compared to Yahoo!” (from a Yahoo! executive) and pinned them to his wall where he would see them everyday.  Failure was an everyday reality they could not escape.  The duo were rejected by the startup incubator Y Combinator, and then retooled their proposal, tried again, and were accepted.

He laments that coping with and deriving meaning from failure like this was not part of his schooling – nor is it exactly conventional in society.  (He seems to address this in-depth, for entrepreneurs, learners and leaders in the 21st century, in his best-selling book “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century will be Made, Not Managed“.) I think that he is getting at a core issue with how we work and learn: the process is often as important as the product, but the product gets all the attention.  Or in his words:

“Failure should be an acceptable part of society.  This doesn’t mean failing out of school or slacking off at work.  It means doing something new, with the expectation that you’ll fail, but to persevere and keep learning along the way”. – Alexis Ohanian

I could relate. Getting an “A” was the ultimate goal of much of my school experience.  I was always focused on the “ends” and not the “means” to getting an A.  I’m beginning to learn that failure is the means to success; it is an important part of the process (especially in an iterative processes used in design-related projects).  How do we grade and build learning experiences that value a process vs. a product?

As for grading failure, there are some easy answers: Keep a focus on a student’s effort, time and energy, their change in performance over time and grade narratively (describing the process of an individual’s learning vs. simply the product) in addition to whatever letter-grading your institution already uses. (Paul Tough, acclaimed education writer of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character“, wrote an excellent article in the NYTimes in 2011 about this very subject, attributing many success stories to character-traits and non-cognitive skills: “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”)

Building a portfolio of work throughout an entire school year for my high-school literature and composition classes was an experience as rich in failure as any I have ever had in any school.  We wrote countless essays, critiqued each others’ and then rewrote and repeated the process. This system of self and peer critique made failure something we were all doing and sharing everyday.  It was useful.  Opening that same portfolio now, I can see the change from my early works until just later that same school year.  I won’t tell you they are phenomenal essays, but I was and am very proud of them.  I never once received full credit for my writing in this particular class – as with things in the adult world, there was always room for improvement.  The same could be true for our learning as adults and professionals.  Keep track of your portfolio!

Is failure always valuable? Or, are all types of failure the same?  Of course not.  The quickest way to fail is to do nothing. Dropping out of challenges is also a kind of failure, but it should be clear now that this is not the kind we’re getting at here.  That’s abandonment, and it has a time and place.  Failure for failure’s sake – like dropping out of “something” simply to go do “nothing” – is not recommended.  What good is it?  Where does it take you, without the tension of direction?  The value is in calculated failure – failure that results on the road to something you are striving for.  So, striving is also part of the equation too.

Failure for the sake of success is a golden idea, rich with the things that lifelong lessons are made of.  That’s what Ohanian and Huffman experienced.  And it’s not that hard to find it happening around us everyday.  For a time, I worked at a climbing wall and lead children in the process of selecting a place to climb and getting as much value out of their experience as they could.  In a single class we often would have children who could reach the top without sweating, and other who would be in tears only a few feet off the ground.  These were school groups, with parents and teachers in the crowd, who would commonly feel bad for the students who struggled and proud of those who could do it with little effort.  I asked them, quietly: which one do you think worked harder?  Which one showed more courage?  Was getting half-way to the top really a failure at all?  Was getting to the top quickly and without trouble, really that much of a success?  What if the wall went on for miles and miles and you could never reach the top – when would you consider it a success?

The answer seems to be that success is a process, not an end product alone.  It is a means of failing and striving; finding a limit and going past it; getting comfortable at a new height, and then going further than you think you can go.

By pinning harsh criticisms to his wall, Alexis Ohanian was reclaiming failure as something of value; a milestone in the road to success.  He reminds us to not let failure oppress you: pull it out of the shadows, pin it to your wall, and keep building. In the greatest growth periods of my adult life, repeated failure has been a central theme as I engaged in genuine challenges.  This was not because, as in climbing, we’re anywhere close to the top of the wall.  But because we’re on the wall and we are still moving, in our way, up.


2 thoughts on “Reclaim Failure, Use it as Fuel

  1. I loved this entry, John. “Success is more about a process than a specific end product.” I really relate to this. Indeed, the Wolf Ridge example you gave is a fantastic reminder that success is a personal process that takes into account overcoming our own obstacles, and that exercising courage and determination to get half way up the wall is perhaps more of a success than the ones who climb to the top without any hesitation at all. I think it is SO important for people to reframe the way we traditionally think about failure and success. My market garden this season was far from a “success,” in terms of revenue generated or even my management of the garden itself. But It feels like a success to me, because I know I am SO much higher on the climbing wall now than I was 3 months ago.

    James K said to me last spring, when my life seemed to be unraveling: “don’t let any good crisis go to waste.” Wise, wise words.

    Thanks for posting this, Joooohhhnnn. I would love to talk to you about in person, too.


    1. Hey cacalabria!

      As Paul Tough said, could it be that the secret to success is failure? Or, is success the secret to failure? Or, are they the same thing?

      Wise words from James K! Those crises – be they good or bad – are the times that shape us, for better or worse. It’s good to pay attention to them when it feel like they might be happening. (Or, at least that’s what my psychiatrist says.) (Kidding!)

      Yes, let’s talk about it in person sometime!


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