Three forms of failure

Failure always involves an error of judgement. I took the wrong course of action. I made inaccurate predictions. I missed an important factor. I estimated that something would work out, and it didn’t.

Yet failure can take three distinct forms, that I have rarely seen distinguished explicitly. Let’s call them Failure #1, Failure #2, and Failure #3

Failure #1. I knew precisely what I wanted to do, I had a clear model for what needed to be done, but it wasn’t executed properly. I failed to do the thing altogether, or I made a fatal mistake, or I was too slack on quality. Nobody came to the party, because I forgot to send my invitations, or I put in the wrong title on my emails and it all went to spam, or I wrote such poor text that people chose not to come.

Failure #2. I knew precisely what my goal was, I had a clear model for what needed to be done, and I executed everything well. Still, things didn’t work out, because the plan was off. I made wrong assumptions about the world, or omitted a major factor. I sent my invitations on time, but nobody came, because it was the World Cup Final that evening, or people simply won’t leave their house for a ‘strategic storytelling’ night. 

There is a measure of overlap between those two types of failure. The boundaries between execution quality and relevance of the model are often blurry. Was my invitation badly written, or was it not pitched appropriately? Should I blame myself for ‘poor execution’, or consider it a clear case of bad judgement, that I overestimated my capacity to get things done. Lack of self-awareness is common, dangerous, and a lame excuse. 

Failure #3 is different. Here, there’s a proposed course of action, execution works out, and things went according to plan. Except, the goal was hazy somewhat, and so, after the deed is done, the praise doesn’t ring right: what you achieved is not exactly what you set out to do. With this comes confusion and frustration. People came to the party, they would come again, some enjoyed themselves. But that elusive magic you were hoping for, that thing-whatever-it-was, it never happened.  

I believe this to be the bitterest type of failure, and the least acknowledged. It is particularly common when we try to build something bold, radical and new. We need people to work with us, but the goal is somewhat unclear, or goes against common wisdom, so we simplify it, we make it more generic, in order to bring them on-board. In the course of things, as other people join the team, that intuitive goal gets lost. The loudest impose their views. The dumbest flatten our nuances. The most narrow-minded stifle our ambition. The most narcissistic hijack our project to satisfy their ends. Whether malice, negligence – or good intentions gone to seed – this happens all the time.

Failure 1 and Failure 2 can yield precious nuggets of wisdom, and knowledge about the world. Those are the failures we can learn and grow from. Not so Failure 3, or at least not so directly. At best, it offers a chance to take perspective, figure out where the path actually led, or what the north star was. Then, maybe we can nail the goal properly this time, so we can try again, and eventually get there, or at least meet failure #1 or #2, and learn something specific, and precious.  

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