Sunday, November 30, 2008

On failure

Failure can be embarrassing, irritating, soul-destroying and demotivating. It can even be quite depressing if you're a very success-driven person. But, at the same time, it can be liberating, rewarding and educational. It all depends on how you approach it.

Within the police service there is a 'culture of success'; in other words, new police officers quickly fall into a way of thinking in which there is no room for failure. This is partly because the service is funded by public money and has to be seen to be providing value - just look at the stink at the publicly-funded BBC recently. It's also partly because the public has huge expectations of the police and every failure knocks their confidence. Politically it's very difficult to set a realistic target like 'reduce robberies by 30%' because it implies that 70% of robberies will still take place. That doesn't reassure people. We are all they have. In any other walk of life, there are alternative suppliers; if you don't like the way a particular store does business, you shop elsewhere. There is no 'elsewhere' when it comes to policing and it places an inordinate amount of scrutiny on the way that law enforcement agencies perform. Lastly, of course, there is the issue of publicity. The gutter press is always nearby, waiting like vultures, for a mistake they can then pounce on and pick at. Let's face it, bad news is good news. One failure and it's headlining the front page. A thousand successes don't even register.

This is a sad state of affairs as there is such a thing as 'noble failure'. To have tried your best but maybe missed your target is not something to be jeered at. If you think back to all of the most important lessons you've ever learned in life, chances are that they grew from failure. We're human. We make mistakes. We've all said things we shouldn't have said, done things we shouldn't have done and, in many cases, we've walked away with the knowledge not to repeat the same mistakes again. Our work, our relationships, our parenting skills and other areas of life are all peppered with mistakes and we've mostly all got better at doing things because of those mistakes. Imagine what would happen if the medical profession 'covered up' their failures. All around the world, scientists and doctors would keep making the same mistakes over and over again. But publish the failure and no one makes the same mistakes. Well, you'd hope so anyway.

Public inquiries into tragic events take place solely to find out what went wrong. Crash investigators seek to find out what went wrong. Crime reconstruction is all about finding out what went wrong. Feedback following a training session or interview ... ditto. We should learn to embrace failure. We'd all be wiser for it. Failure breeds success. And, it's essential to innovation. You can't innovate without taking risks. And taking risks means accepting that sometimes, things won't work.

As recently reported in Business Week, many companies put time and effort into getting their staff to accept that risk-taking leads to innovation. 'After years of cost-cutting initiatives and growing job insecurity, most employees don't exactly feel like putting themselves on the line. Add to that the heightened expectations by management on individual performance, and it's easy to see why so many opt to play it safe. Indeed, embracing failure - gasp! -- is close to blasphemy. ' But as Stefan H. Thomke, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of Experimentation Matters, says, 'Failure is not a bad thing. Failure is so important to the experimental process. Crucial, in fact. After all, that's why true, breakthrough innovation - an imperative in today's globally competitive world, in which product cycles are shorter than ever - is so extraordinarily hard. It requires well-honed organizations built for efficiency and speed to do what feels unnatural: Explore. Experiment. Foul up, sometimes. Then repeat.'

Teddy Rooseveldt knew what he was talking about when he made this famous comment: 'It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.'

So why all this talk about noble failure and defeat? Because today is the last day of November and my attempt to write a novel in a month for the NaNoWriMo project has hit the iceberg of reality and sunk to the bottom of the Failure Sea. I never got beyond 20,000 words despite the best efforts of Lara, Mary, Laura, John, Stu, Chris, Hannah and others egging me on. Life just got in the way. Even this final weekend is knackered as I have a house full of family staying here (I'm cooking for nine) and I can hardly ignore them all 'because I'm working on a novel'. I mean, there isn't even an advance on offer to placate them with.

So I am throwing in the towel, hanging up my dog tags and admitting defeat. And I have to rise above 29 years of conditioning as a police officer. I have to embrace this failure and look at what I've learned from the experience. Firstly, there's the obvious one - don't try to write an entire novel in a month! Secondly, it's made me examine my working practices; how I fit my writing around my family life and - for 12 months longer anyway - my day job. Best of all, of course, is that I've written something like one third of a novel that I can now work on at my leisure, improve, tweak, develop and then utterly fail to get published. But I can learn from that too. I spent 18 years watching rejection letters come through the letterbox. Those agents and publishers who took the time to offer me feedback did me a huge favour. I learned from them. I got better. And, eventually, I became an author. A real, paid one.

'To fail is a natural consequence of trying, To succeed takes time and prolonged effort in the face of unfriendly odds. To think it will be any other way, no matter what you do, is to invite yourself to be hurt and to limit your enthusiasm for trying' - David Viscott.


doctawho42 said...

It was brilliant enough that you tried, and what you wrote was pretty awesome, and even rofl enducing at some points. Keep on trucking with that story, it'l be a beauty once its all shined up and perrrdy.

Oh, oh, I'm getting your current (thats right, CURRENT!) book for christmas. I have a wish list, and its on it, so that should happen.

BTW, please do not go and see Australia the movie at any time. ANY TIME. I saw it, and I now have less faith in humanity. Its really, that bad.
Well intentioned sure, but you can say that about alot of things...

punk in writing said...

In the immortal words of Chumbawamba, "I get knocked down but I get up again, you're never gonna keep me down".

Lara said...

"There is no such thing as failure - just a steep learning curve." Lara Greenway

chris hale said...


In government-speak, a failure could be termed 'differently successful'. Don't be too hard on yourself for not finishing the book - I know what a multi-tasker you are and how much you try to cram in!

Within organisations like the police, failure can be used as a stick with which to beat you. Not only does the police service have a culture of success, but also a culture of blame; 'something went wrong, it's someone's fault'. It wants a year on year reduction in crime, when any sane person knows that's impossible, and takes its managers to task when they fail to come up with the requisite figures. Camel, straw and back springs to mind.

Sometimes failure needs to be celebrated. Look at Shackleton's expedition. And look at the supermarket shelves; the reason the stuff they sell doesn't kill us is thanks to our ancestors who discovered the hard way that eating yew berries and hemlock probably wasn't a good move!

Celebrate your (many) successes. Embrace your failures. And then find someone else to carry the can!

Fastfingers said...

Nah, I didn't make the 50,000 word mark either, but I sure did enjoy trying. Like you say, I'll just take my time finishing and tweaking it now - at least it made me start writing properly again instead of dabbling like I've been doing for last two years.

Andy Nimmons said...

You are like a weeble - you get a knock but always come back upright!

Tony E said...


You never failed to keep Paula and me amused during those long nights in Ealing...

Helen Smith said...

I suspect that NanoWriMo is a cunning device to make everyone realise how difficult it is to write a novel. No-one, except Georges Simenon and Barbara Cartland (both now dead)has ever been able to write a novel in such a short time. Even Iain Banks takes six weeks - and doesn't he say he spends all year thinking about it?

As for failure - very interesting post. Having watched all five series of The Wire, I feel I know all about 'juking the stats'. There must be some way to hold public services to account, to measure success and all that bollocks, without the mad scramble to declare achievements and good news (and incremental improvments) every year.

It's related to the fundamental problem with the current exam system - the poor kids never have time to experiment or learn anything, particularly in the sixth form, which used to be a lovely opportunity to relax and 'go deep' on the learning but which is now a constant round of tests on subjects they will never have the time to learn anything about.

Arf. Sorry about the rant. One of the joys of commenting on other people's blogs is that one doesn't feel compelled to be as amusing as one does on one's own patch.

Debby said...

I think that the idea of NaNoWriMo is to simply get you in the habit of working on the novel daily for a month. I don't imagine that many actually finish the novel in that time frame, but you've got enough of a chunk of it done that you're less likely to abandon it.

Did you hear the old story about the farm? The cows were kept in one field, the bulls in another. One day there was a horrible wind. Sent cows flying ass over teacup. When the storm was done, they picked themselves up from where ever the wind had knocked them. Much to their amazement, they discovered the bulls grazing, seemingly unaffected by the strong winds. "Haven't you heard?" they asked. "We bulls wobble but we don't fall down."

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hannah - You're way too kind, but I'm more than happy to accept the compliments. Tsk. I am such a tart. I've posted up a quick explanation of how the rest of the book will go (one day) on the Orpheus Blog. And yes, I heard that Australia is a big pile of wombat's bum gravy as well.

Punky - Thanks for referencing the oddest song in pop history. What the Hell does 'Don't cry for me next door neighbour' actually mean? Unless you live next door to Eva Peron, I guess. But hats off to any band that gets into the charts with a lyric that says 'Pissing the night away'.

Lara - 'There is no such thing as failure ... as long as everyone expects you to be an underachiever anyway' - Steve Colgan.

Chris - How true. I understand that there is now an actual business activity called Blamestorming where clever people in suits sit around a table and discuss who they can blame for the latest financial fiasco. But don't worry about me; I'm certainly not down about it. Disappointed, yes. But never down.

Fastfingers - Then it hasn't all been a waste of time. Hoorah! Rome wasn't built in a day. Which, incidentally, is the excuse I use for not having finished the bathroom yet.

Andy - Welcome aboard! Pleasure to hear from you (he's a jolly good wedding photographer chum). Yes, I am like weeble but not because of my indomitable spirit. Oh no. It's because I'm shaped like an avocado.

Tony - You make it sound like we were part of some dodgy suburban 'keys in the bowl' type swinging scene. We worked together, folks! Honest! (Oh, the wife says 'Hi Big Boy').

Helen - Interstingly, part of my day job at the moment is trying to convince people to stop counting figures and percentages and focus upon results. Surely the most accurate measures of police activity is the impact it makes upon crime? My personal measure is how safe people feel in their homes. And, please, do feel free to rant. I love to read it as it makes me feel less like a grumpy old git.

Debby - A weeble gag! And so old I bet it's worth money!