Joy of failure

This morning, I repeated my “give more than you take” talk for Grand Rapids Day of .NET. This event is not put on by a company or a university – it’s put on by “the community” … a bunch of dedicated people like my friends Bruce Abernethy and Chris Woodruff who love developing software and want to share their knowledge with others. This is an all-day event with four independent tracks of sessions from 20 different speakers, and nearly 200 people gave up their Saturday to share and learn about their chosen craft. Microsoft stars like Jennifer Marsman do some of the sessions, but most of the presenters are themselves simply active members of the software community. I’m always humbled and amazed by the quality of events like this one – useful, vibrant events thrown by a community of volunteers.

I didn’t get a great vibe from my little talk. Chatting with some new friends afterword, I tried to figure out why … I think my home town inherently has a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude, so my exhortation to give more than you take probably inspired more of a “duh” than the “hmmm” I was going for. Ah well, nobody got hurt (which reminds me … I forgot to do the cartwheel at the end – dang).

The hallway conversation afterword was awesome, though. We talked about our industry and what makes Grand Rapids a great place for technology. We have strong universities. We have low turnover. We have low labor costs, housing costs, office costs, and bandwidth costs. And we have a passionate software community. Every business community wants to tell the world why its town is the best place to set up shop … vibrant software communities need to make sure that they let their businesses leaders know what an important role technologists play in making that true. A great software community is really good for business.

We also talked about failure. One of my favorite kids movies is Meet the Robinsons, because it celebrates failure … every time you get another failure out of the way, it brings you that much closer to success! Think Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb … it’s also a tenet of agile (test driven development) and lean startup thinking. Don’t fear failure – meet it head on, get it out of the way, and move past it toward success.

That sounds simple, but I really struggle with it. Frankly, I hate the way failure feels. Now I’m trying to move past that …

Today felt like a bit of a failure. Fine. As much as I love this community, it was the wrong audience for the message I came prepared to convey. Lesson learned – next time, I’ll bring a message of more direct relevance to this audience, because I genuinely want to contribute. Done. I guess that doesn’t feel so bad …

But it feels like two in a row. Last night, I played violin with Amy Young at Baker Book House, and I wasn’t “on” … I thought it was the worst I’ve played at an Amy Young gig (even though my family said it was fine). I lost my confidence at some point, and I felt absolutely awful … I just wanted to crawl under a rock but had to plow through – I had to resort to playing extremely simple licks. Oh well. It happens. In retrospect, I’ve been improving so much at improvisation (finally) that I think I got cocky. I missed a rehearsal and thought I could still be great, but I wasn’t. There’s an obvious fix – don’t miss rehearsal next time. Do the work, kid.

Done. Next?

In the past, failures that felt like this to me would have been debilitating. I’ve had a tendency to abandon things that I’m pretty good at, just because they’re getting hard. That doesn’t make sense to me anymore … I don’t want to live the rest of my life only doing things I was born knowing how to do. I keep mentioning Toastmasters … once I got my chapter to about the half-way point of members required to be chartered, it started getting hard. You mean, I have to WORK to get people to join? Yes, I do. Facing that work is turning out to be the most valuable part of the Toastmasters experience for me. It’s useful to me because it’s arbitrary – it doesn’t actually matter much to the world (to my career, to my family, to my friends) if Toastmasters for Techies succeeds or fails. It might fail – I might fail – but it’s a safe failure for me. That practice is invaluable.

What does matter to me is helping software companies succeed and helping software stories get heard. If I’m ever going to have a real impact there, I’m probably going to mess up multiple times every day. Might as well get used to plowing past the petty discomfort of failure and get back to the work of succeeding.

2 thoughts on “Joy of failure

  1. nogglematt

    I am reminded of a poem by Emily Dickinson..

    “Success is counted sweetest, by those who ne’er succeed, to comprehend a nectar, requires sorest need.”

    Failure, and the fear of failure, fuels the fire to succeed.

    I will say that the Rolling Stones picture may have had a lot to do with the audience! 🙂

    Personally, I enjoyed your presentation. The day as a whole, if nothing else, left me more motivated!

  2. Patrick Foley Post author

    Ohhhhhh … thanks for pointing that out. I remember that little gasp now that you mention it … Hmmm …

    Beautiful poem. Thank you so much for sharing it (had not heard before – my culture is random). I won’t forget that one.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *