I smiled as I considered this. It seems as if so many people in our culture are allergic to failure, and I have certainly been one of that group in the past. It is as if to say ‘anything that does not measure up to this line means you’re a failure as a human being – just to a human being who has failed to get to the line.’
On the flip side, I have a friend and mentor who points out that you can’t really succeed until you’ve failed spectacularly three times.
And then I think of Taleb, who wrote the fabulous Antifragile (haven’t heard of it? GO READ IT. No, really, it’s time. I’ll be reviewing it at some point) and what he says about the difference between something – a person, a career, an entire ecosystem – that benefits from shocks and craziness (antifragile), and the things that are quite fragile indeed. He points out that with the antifragile, there are always tiny failures that get tweaked and solved along the line. Failure, in this system, is a really great thing, because the failures are tiny and easily resolved. And if you don’t get tiny failures in this system, something is wrong – either you’re not doing anything at all, or the failures are hiding under the carpet where they are growing teeth and claws.
Which brings me to the other way of being, fragility. To be fragile, in reference to failure, is to seem fine for a long time while failure is bubbling in the background, ready to cover you in boiling oil when the time is ripe. Or, if you prefer, jump out from under the carpet and devour you.
An example of the former, antifragile, might be… Google. Programming. Taxi drivers, as a profession. Consultants. People who have immediate feedback on what works and what doesn’t and who can make immediate change.
An example of the fragile, he gives some good examples – the banking system for one. Education. Religion. Slow to change, slow to adapt and while some may see that whatever is going on isn’t going to be good in the long term, the visionaries often aren’t in control, and those in control often aren’t visionaries – or at least not quite the kind you want.