Failing Up to 2.0

I believe there is an inherent benefit to failure. Organizations need to allow room for failure so that we all have a chance to grow.

Hiram Ettienne


I remember having a conversation one afternoon with a friend who was an MIT Grad student at the time. She was brilliant. While we talked once about the expectations I have of those around me, she told me, “Hiram, you know what your problem is? You assume competence!” She believed that upwards of 50% of the folks we all assumed were competent were indeed incompetent, and we simply frustrated ourselves when we assumed anything different.

My mind was blown. It was as though someone hit me with a brick. I was intrigued, so I looked up the word “incompetence” in the dictionary. One definition equates it with being ineffective. The fact that a substantial number of us could be ineffective… that’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

I’m reminded of the Thomas Edison quote that spoke to his troubles inventing the light bulb: “I haven’t failed, I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I do believe there is an inherent benefit to failure. It would make sense for organizations to allow more room for failure, because it helps you grow.

Pain & Gain

After picking yourself up from a momentary failure, when you do finally have that “light-bulb” moment, that solution tends to stay with you much longer. Why? Because failure is painful, and pain etches itself into our long-term memory so we modify our behavior.

Learning requires a development/sandbox environment, where scenarios can be tested in safe conditions. We need Failure Safe-Zones. Sometimes failing a few times at something is critical to truly understanding a thing. It’s the equivalent of breaking stuff as a kid, taking it apart, and gaining a new understanding of the inner workings. How can you forget that? But if you were made too afraid to break a thing, you never got this opportunity to see the inner workings. It’s very cathartic. When I say “understanding,” I mean mastery. I’m not talking about messing around with something aimlessly until something shakes loose and saying, “I fixed it.” I never say that I understand a thing unless I have mastered it. It’s a gift… and a curse.

Teaching for Mastery

My Discrete Math Professor at BU, Prof. A, is a distinguished academic and a seriously smart, no nonsense guy. One day, Prof. A. was giving his lecture in his thick Russian accent, when he realized that the majority of the class was having a difficult time understanding a new concept. I fully expected him to do what most professors do, and simply steamroll through his presentation as though he hadn’t a care in the world. Surprisingly, Prof. A. stopped the class in dramatic fashion and asked, “What am I doing wrong? Because it’s not all of you, so it’s me.” He then explained Combinations and Permutations using a few Coke cans he had in the room, and suddenly the light bulb went off. In his closing arguments, Professor A. said, “I don’t care if someone can do something really well—it does not mean they understand a subject. If they cannot explain it to a 5-year-old, they don’t truly understand it. It doesn’t matter if they won a Nobel Prize for it!” That blew my socks off and changed my thought process for good.

If you can teach it, you have a good grasp of it.

If you can teach it to a 5-year-old, then you truly understand it.

Most people who can fix a thing don’t necessarily understand it. They sometimes understand a few methods that work most of the time; they’re working the law of averages. Unless you become a master in something, you won’t create real innovation or real art with it. You’ll just get by. In IT, it’s like the old, “have you turned it off and on?” method. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking this true-blue method! It may very well work. But turning it off and on does not require mastery. It’s just about getting it back to a default state to see if there is a real problem, or if it’s just an anomaly.

My grad student friend proposed that most people we meet every day are most likely incompetent, aka ineffective. That was hard for me to accept. The way I was taught, when you said you knew something, that meant mastery. Inevitably you were going to be called on it. Meanwhile, the concept of the day is “Fake it till you make it.” Have you seen the LinkedIn meme with Branson that says, “If someone asks you if you can do something, say yes, then figure out how to do it later”? I love the boldness of this, but that method is not going to work for everyone. We need to find safe ways to break things to their essence, so that, as masters, we can find simpler ways to explain them to others.

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