Failure, Humility, and Learning

My first response to a thread on Detroit’s Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX) about celebrating failure as an intimate partner to innovation. The original article that spurred the thread is here.

From the website: The UIX is ”an initiative to showcase and advance Detroit’s growing social innovation movement. Led by Issue Media Group withData Driven DetroitThe Civic Commons and a coalition of media and community partners, UIX is made possible thanks to funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.”

Here’s a profile they did on me and my work at FoodLab.


I agree that it’s a good idea to create a culture where it’s okay to fail — this ethos was drilled into me early in my professional life working in the tech industry. I’m sure you’ve heard the mantra: “fail early, fail often.” It’s why good angel investors invest in PEOPLE not in IDEAS.

I think for me, failure’s intimately tied to two of the things I value most: humility and constant learning.

When we fail (and recognize our mistakes as such), we realize that not we’re not Gods, we can’t predict or control everything (bad OR good, as Claire pointed out above), but we can strive to pay attention to what we want and whether what we’re doing is actually getting us there… if sometime we’re doing doesn’t serve us, if we’re failing, we try something else. If we pretend we never fail or we’re afraid to, we’ll never innovate, never improve. Einstein supposedly said “Insanity is trying the same thing again and again and expecting different results” — but sometimes trying something different requires messing up.

On the other hand, if we try things willy-nilly and we don’t learn when we fail, though, there isn’t a whole of point to it. There are plenty of examples that we might call failures of society (some really big ones) that we haven’t really learned from. There are plenty of instances where we try to build things from scratch when we could have learned a whole lot from someone who has done something similar before. I’m not sure that type of failure is noble or useful.

How can we harness failure to learn from our mistakes and do better? I think the non-profit/foundation world has a whole lot to contribute here. How do we build a system that doesn’t just reward success, but successful iterationlearning, capacity to change, resilience? Getting rid of “stagnation” as Tunde puts it… but not just no stagnation for the sake of movement but for the sake of betterment. When it comes to social enterprise, SO OFTEN we only talk about what’s working while covering up the things that haven’t worked or the parts of an existing enterprise that are particularly challenging, troubling… One of the things I really admire about the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund is the work they’ve done to document some of the enterprises that just haven’t worked outand how dedicated they’ve been to working with many of their grantees through problems, not just giving up after one grant cycle

I also want to mention that we can’t ignore the size of risk & resources involved in an operation. Failure is more tolerable in a fundraising experiment for a small community project, but maybe less tolerable when you’re building a ship or performing heart surgery. In those cases, you’ll want to get all your failures out of the way on LOW-RISK experiments up front before you commit to the real deal.

I’d also point out that we have a tendency to allow some kinds of people the luxury of “failing” and not others. But more on this some other time…


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