Sunday, August 25, 2013

Congratulations, you failed

Ah, school. Welcome back to school, freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors, super-seniors, you six-year-plus types. It is an amazing time to get something wrong.


The path to graduate school may be paved with 4.0s but the path to originality is paved with pot holes and the occasional pile of dogshit. The bigger, the smellier, the more treacherous the better. And I beg you all to start stepping in it. The sooner, the better.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting you fail by sleeping through all your classes, melting your brain with bong hits or failing to turn in your assignments. Rest assured, if you set out to fail, that is one way to do it. I'm talking about sticking your neck out by asking crazy questions, putting forward risky ideas and above all, looking for strategic ways to turn convention on its head. I'm talking about removing the fear to fail -- I'm not advocating failing outright.

I had a creative director, the much-quoted Pete Wood, who preached -- (yes, preached; his path to creative director started after failing out of seminary): "Think dangerously, act safely." Pete failed seminary because he couldn't reconcile the role of women in the Catholic church with his own ideas. His ideas got him in trouble. How awesome is that? What was the last idea YOU had that got you in trouble? Remember how much fun it was? Did you learn anything? Of course you did.

The downside of thinking dangerously is you'll probably do twice, 3 times, 4 times as much work. But that's what it takes to be great: work. And being wrong a lot. In fact - if you get it right the first time, you would be very brave to throw it away and try to fail once, just to see what it feels like. And get used to the feeling of getting it wrong. Getting it wrong can be a sickening, humiliating experience. And it can also be an incredible motivator. SO CLOSE! Let's do it again! I guarantee nothing feels better than succeeding AFTER you fail a couple times.

As for acting safely? Cover your bases if you need to. Complete the assignment. Then I challenge you to try it a crazy, different way, just to show you're thinking about it. Don't put all your eggs in one basket -- but think about flinging one of those baskets at the stars.

You're in school. A certain amount of failure is expected of you. While good grades will get you into grad school, great ideas and a knowledge of what it feels like to blow it will give you the confidence to follow your own path instead of someone else's. That confidence will get you into grad school. Or better -- it'll help you decide whether you really have to spend that money. Trust me when I say your failure stories will be far more interesting than the stories about the times you did the safe thing and lucked into a B. They'll make you a more interesting person. Employers appreciate an employee who has learned to take a calculated risk by crashing and burning a few times.

You watch Project Runway? Of course you do. You know who the big losers are on that show? The safe ones. They hug each other and nod reassuringly, "Well, we're still here!" But inside they're thinking "SHIT! I didn't take a big enough risk! I'm in the middle." Because the middle is death. The middle is unmemorable. The middle is Jan Brady. Forgotten. When you really want to prove yourself, you have to put yourself out there -- and out there is where spectacular failure happens. And amazing greatness. Whichever.

So consider this a call to arms, you students, you brave scholars. Don't take "good enough" for an answer. Get out there and make some mistakes and actually learn something from them. In the words of Ken Robinson, "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original." If you don't know who Ken Robinson is, watch his TED talk.

1 comment:

Sayeda said...

I really enjoyed this article and resonate a lot with what you said. I used to watch a lot of TED talks too.
Speaking of failure, haha, I can't seem to find something I haven't failed at.
Anyway, If your free, do read this random outpouring of my 17yr old self.

And maybe if you have time, my blog too :)