Celebrating Failure! What?

Yay, we failed!  is one of my favorite games to lead in workshops with 10's to 100’s of individuals. We play it early in workshops and I listen for the rounds of "Yay" that fill the air along with waving hands and laughter.

It’s never clear how a group will play with making mistakes. How will they jump in to supporting each other, to celebrating hesitation or just getting something, in this case a name, wrong.

Recently, I got to play with middle school and high school students at the Chief Science Officers (CSO) program. We streamed into and filled a hall way, sixty plus students. We practiced our: “Yay, we failed”. The students were the most committed group to saying this phrase (adults tend not to embrace the words “we failed”). 

It was, as far as I knew, the first time in this summer institute that the students were asked to engage explicitly in celebrating failure. The next day, you could hear from time to time: "Yay, we failed." One student came to tell me, “When we bowled gutter balls last night, we called out 'Yay, we failed.' And in our skit tomorrow, our proposal gets rejected. So, we’re going to say, 'Yay, we failed!'”

We often say to kids and adults, "Don’t be afraid of failure. You have to try things and you’re going to fail." Yet, we also say in explicit and implicit ways: "You should have gotten this right." We don’t often create an environment for failure.

In preparing for this workshop with the CSO program of Arizona Tech Council Foundation, I came across Astro Teller's TED Talk. As the CEO of Google's semi-secret research facility, X, he talks about the importance of going for moonshots and of the discoveries that happen from aiming big, towards the impossible. What is a moonshot? It's what we see taking place in the film Hidden Figures, where everyone worked to do the impossible - reach the moon.

What does an environment for failure look like? It’s one that makes use of everything. It doesn’t have to hide that mistakes took place. In fact, we want to find ways of exposing failure in a way that we can make use of them. Creatively finding ways to celebrate failure helps us bring failures to light. This is essential for ensemble creativity.

Soon I’ll be going to the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing to be part of a panel, “Befriending Failure is Simply Smarter”, led by Bushra Anjum of Amazon. My fellow women panelists agree, “if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough”. And let’s add,  you may not be aiming high or dreaming big enough.

Try it: Practice failing gleefully. Choose your moonshot. Choose something that’s beyond your reach and try failing at doing it.

Let us know how it goes.

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