September 23 I will be part of a design panel talking about failure. Sponsored by the AIGA, the event is titled Failure as an Appetizer. And the general premise of the talk is that through our own failures we learn deeper lessons.
Failure is a really hard word. Technically it means the state or condition of NOT meeting a desirable or intended objective. Who wants to admit to that?
And in reality I'm not sure we should. I think that every day our lives are full of dozens of small failures and successes. I don't want to think of them as failures—they are just less-than-perfect moments that I learn from and adjust to.
So how do I define failure for this presentation? I came up with four broad categories. And I can rattle off at least one example from my life for each category:
- Project failure. A project that doesn't meet the goals my client and I established.
- Personal failure. When I've done or said something that was untruthful, unkind or just plain wrong. (Have you read the Four Agreements? I wasn't impeccable with my word.)
- Business failure. When I've made a decision or done something that hurts my business.
- Balance failure. When I've made a decision or done something that hurts my family or business—when I have had to put one before the other.
But here is the good news—with 52 years behind me and almost half of them running my own design business, none of these failures have been insurmountable. Business is good. I'm still married. I pay my bills and taxes—and fund my retirement. I'm working with clients I've had for decades—and a half dozen new ones. My kids love me. And my cat still tolerates me.
So how do I get through failure? Sometimes it feels like an arrow to my chest. Sometimes a series of annoying pin pricks. Either way, recovery takes time. Time to identify where I went wrong, or what I didn't anticipate. And then time to make a conscious readjustment of attitudes, plans, relationships and work methods. Then, as always, I put one foot in front of the other and jump back into work and life. It is this active concept of adjusting that I try to embrace.
I like the word FAILING a lot better.
Failing and it's antonym, improving, are words I can get behind. I love them as a pair—like yin and yang. And I think they offer a good metaphor for life as an independent. I envision my business as a surfboard that is veering back and forth. Most of the time I am happily riding the waves somewhere between failing and improving. Enjoying the water below me and the sun on my shoulders. But sometimes I tip towards failing. And through a series of small and subtle maneuvers I regain my equilibrium. Other times I lurch turn towards the sun and gravity not so subtly pulls me back down with a bump. And as always, some subtle shifts in behavior or attitude bring me back to an even keel.
What do you think about failure and what might you add to the list? How do you keep going when failure threatens to sink you?