Reclaiming ‘F’

Editor’s note: This piece is part of our “Failure Series,” where we examine the messy and difficult work of creating equitable systems. The ‘F’ word has a bad rep in global health, but the truth is we all fail. We encouraged Global Health Corps’ community members to share their own stories of failure to help inspire a culture where setbacks aren’t end points, but merely milestones on the way to progress. Enjoy!

If you’d like to join a community of changemakers who embrace failure as part of the process of changing the world, apply to be a Global Health Corps fellow today at ghcorps.org/apply.

fail.ure/falyer/ n.Lack of success. The omission of expected or required action.

Why is it that F, humbly occupying the sixth position in our proud lineup of twenty-six linguistic soldiers, has been the brunt of such fear and ridicule over the years? Flounder. Fumble. Fake. Falsify. The big red ‘F’ that is so systematically ingrained into our consciousness from an early age. The scarlet letter of a goal not reached, an expectation not met, a challenge not overcome. Even worse, of an unwillingness to try. Whether individually or collectively, F has been the unfortunate bearer of unexamined criticism. And I think it’s time we change that.

To me, failure is an indication of success, rather than its opposite. To fail is to try. To risk. If you do not fail, you do not succeed. The two go hand in hand, and too often we glorify success while minimizing the many failures that came before it. Maybe we don’t want to admit that failure exists; that our heroes are fallible, even human. Talk to anyone who is ‘successful’ and they’ll ask you to sit down in an armchair with a large mug of tea, because the story of how they got to where they are today is a long and winding one full of pitfalls and misgivings and self-doubt. Yet, the modern world we’ve constructed requires that we present the most perfect version of ourselves for assessment and comparison. That we admit no fault. And if you’re completely honest and share your vulnerabilities publicly, you risk being labeled as insecure, strange, or attention-seeking.

Recently, one brave soul decided to challenge this by publishing his CV of Failures. Johannes Haushofer, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, posted his now infamous CV on Twitter stating:

“Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days.”

Professor Haushofer’s CV includes sections titled ‘degree programs I did not get into’, ‘academic positions and fellowships I did not get’, and ‘awards and scholarships I did not get’. Such an unflinching, public declaration of failure — especially in academia — was lauded as a brave and inspiring step that made it ok for others to admit, even boast, about their own long list of failures.

Imagine that — a world where we compete with one another based on how many times we’ve failed. Where recruiters and selection committees view failure not as a weakness but rather a predictor of integrity, ingenuity, and resilience. Speaking of resilience, Diane Coutu wrote a 2002 piece for Harvard Business Review that is still very relevant today — what is resilience, exactly, and how does one acquire it? She concluded that resilient people possess three distinct characteristics: they face down reality, search for meaning, and constantly innovate. Failure asks us, repeatedly, to adopt this approach in a cycle of continuous feedback and self-improvement. Rather than feeling sorry for themselves, resilient people look at the situation like an engineering problem — what went wrong, and how can I fix it? They separate and thus vindicate themselves by simply looking at how they can learn from the process and do better next time.

Challenge: Innovate. ©Alyssa L. Palmqvist

This shift in mindset is subtle, albeit difficult, and takes practice. And practice requires repetition. By this logic, the more you fail, the more resilient you become. And yet we are taught as children to be afraid of failure — to be ashamed, to try and hide it from the world rather than learn and grow from it. This systematic vilification of failure is thus the real shame, robbing so many of the opportunity to build strength and character. As a friend of mine recently and so aptly put it, “failure is guaranteed, growth is a choice.”

Astro Teller, Director of Google X laboratories (think: Google Glass, driverless cars) sets a powerful example of turning failure on its head by casting it as another way of learning. Describing Google X as a “moonshot factory”, Teller encourages his employees to end projects by offering bonuses, promotions and recognition when a project fails. At first, this was a radical approach. But after several months of applauding failure, it became part of a culture that has gone on to produce some of the most exciting innovations on the market today. “Real failure is the point at which you know what you’re working on is the wrong thing to be working on”, says Teller. “Up until that point, you are learning, not failing.”

Tim Harford, an economist and columnist for the Financial Times, also advocates for re-framing failure as a process of trial and error. However, in a quote particularly relevant to this election year, he makes it clear we still have a long way to go:

“When a politician stands up, campaigning for elected office, and says I want to fix our health system, I want to fix our education system, [and] I have no idea how to do it. I’ve got a half a dozen ideas, we’re going to test them out, they’ll probably all fail, then we’ll test some other ideas out, we’ll find some that work, we’ll build on those and get rid of the ones that don’t. When a politician campaigns on that platform — and more importantly when voters like you and me are willing to vote for that kind of politician — then I will admit that it is obvious that trial and error works.”

You can hear more from Tim, Astro and others on the TED Radio Hour Podcast ‘Failure is an Option’.

For my part, I’ve learned that failure is inevitable, even necessary, for those with high ambitions and what sets you apart is the way you respond to it. Failure — whether it be the closing of a chapter in life, confusion about where to turn next, or even just feeling overwhelmed — can be viewed either as a crisis or as an opportunity. In the moment, it can feel like the floor is falling out from underneath you and nothing good could possibly come of the situation. I know, I’ve been there. Many times. But with retrospect you find that impossibly, miraculously, everything seems to have worked out for the best. That in fact you are bolder and wiser because of it. By recasting failure as ‘success in the making’ — as a feedback loop of trial and error — we can learn to actually be proud of our many failures; to see them as a process of personal refinement (although it might be a bit soon to start listing them on our CV — baby steps).

In closing, a beautiful book by Chris Prentiss called ‘Zen and the Art of Happiness’ asks us to re-frame painful situations by asking two simple questions: 1) Can I trust that every event that befalls me is absolutely the best possible event that could occur? and, 2) Will I give that a chance to be true? By adopting this mindset, you set yourself free from anxiety forever. Simply, powerfully, and truly.

So, dear F, I thank you for your patience as we slowly come to realize the power of failure. As we dare to have faith. To fathom. To fight. We should all wear this scarlet letter with pride.