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A Philosophy of Failure


I volunteer for a non-profit organization that is attempting to turn a philosophy of work and learning into a catch phrase: “Do it. Try it. Fix it.” This is the mantra heard frequently in conversations among leadership and staff, specifically when organizing and executing a new initiative. And it’s starting to bother me.

I understand the essence of this catch phrase. If you are so afraid to fail that you wait until all conditions are perfect before moving ahead then you will be paralyzed and never experience any level of success. Thomas Edison discovered 1,000 ways not to make a lightbulb before landing on a solution. Einstein’s dead-end job as a patent clerk freed up his mind to imagine what might lie beyond Newtonian physics. Failure is a great teacher, if you’re a willing student. Ryan DeMattia recently wrote a piece entitled, “Why You Need To Fail Right Now: Failurepreneurship as a Philosophy” in which he explains why failure is a necessary component of success.

My issue with turning a philosophy into a bumper sticker is that, at best, it devalues the process of learning and, at worst, it can lead to misinterpretation. “Do it. Try it. Fix it.” could be interpreted as forgoing a reasonable timetable for planning, not allocating proper resources, or settling for poor craftsmanship.

So you don’t think I’m a hypocrite, my personal philosophy of design includes well-worn slogans such as, “form follows function,” “anything worth doing is worth doing well,” “God is in the details,” and “make the logo bigger” (ok, that last one was a joke). These slogans describe how I approach design but none of them completely encapsulates my philosophy of design.

One of the things I learned in art school was that you never really finish a piece, you just stop working on it (implying you’ve hit the deadline set by a professor or a client). I’ve often had the experience of working on a site design for months, only to see something that I want to change minutes after the site goes live. That’s the learning process and I embrace it.

I’ve written nearly 400 words to explain my interpretation of a six-word slogan. I’m cool with a philosophy of failure as it applies to learning from your mistakes, but parroting “Do it. Try it. Fix it.” as a way of explaining your work philosophy comes up short for me.

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