Thank God For Failures

Or my takeaways from the opening night of TED 2016.

This year’s TED is sponsored by the letter “Dream” and the messages it inspired are as mushy as you’d expect. But having digested all the shrink-wrapped rhetorics of American Dreams and having moved on to become post-dreamers, we humans know that every dream hits a wall eventually.

Turns out, sometimes that wall stops us from running off a cliff. Two talks on Monday night gave some sobering perspective on letting go of what we want.

photo: Bret Hartman/TED

Astro Teller: Build a company culture that celebrates failure

Astro Teller (If that is his real name then I’m blowing his cover: that man came from the future) told the TED audience how they roll at (Google) X, the future-making company that created such inventions as self-driving cars, flying wind turbines, and internet-providing, self-navigating balloons.

At X teams get promotions and cash bonuses for failing. Every day they come at their projects with new ways to break them. The more they break, the more street cred they earn, the louder the applause (I imagine that spectacular messing up of multi-million projects ends with parties on a yacht, with pools filled with champagne and guest appearances by Leonardo DiCaprio).

That is how you give people motivation to come up with the most daring and innovative ideas. Because when you’re only motivated to succeed, you get attached to your project, it becomes a precious thing you’ll try to protect from critique, you’ll start making excuses for its failings. And you’ll always play it safe. You’ll be terrified of making a fool out of yourself.

The only ideas that (almost) never fail are old and tested ideas. The opposite of innovation.

Also, in the tradition of Karl Popper’s falsification approach — that is the only way to arrive at a theory or design that is infallible. Sure, this method burns through budgets that rival the economy of a medium-sized country. But it’s better to use that money to kill a project in development than to let that project kill someone after the release, or lose even more money.

photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED

Shonda Rhimes: What are you when you lose the thing that defines you?

Shonda Rhimes is a Titan of television. She’s responsible for around 70 hours of televised content every season. She’s one of the most successful TV creators because she’s talented, inhumanly driven, dedicated, and she loves her work. She’s working a dream job, but she loves the job part just as much as the dream.

She loves work more than she likes play. And because she’s a mother of three daughters, that was a scary thing to realize.

Rhimes has a calling which has been with her ever since she started creating. The vision, inspiration and joy of work. The Hum. It has always been what defined her ambition and dreams. She was the Hum. And one day, the Hum stopped.

In a way, that was like ceasing to be. What are you when you stop being who you are?

And to those of us who are not Titans — maybe heroes, or maybe just gladiators — that is always a risk of giving our everything to pursue a dream. Even the most beautiful dream, if it’s worth a damn, is also lots of work. Sometimes the longer you pursue a dream, the more you master it, the more you give up for it — the harder it becomes. Then it becomes thankless and tedious. The sweet taste of success turns into taste of ash.

And the biggest dreams take the most out of our lives. We neglect other work, friends, family, sleep, health, ourselves.

Sometimes the best dreams fail. Our little universe carefully built around one lifelong pursuit, implodes. Sometimes that universe grows so much it turns cold and lifeless. If we’re lucky, we’ll find ourselves on top of the world, all alone. And there’s no way out but down.

Shonda found her way back to joy.

It was love, all along. Turned out the Hum was a replacement for the love that she neglected.

We are not our dreams. Or our jobs. That’s a powerful thing to remember when failure feels like the end of the world.