How the tech industry turns the 'epic fail' into a positive

INNOVATION TALK: THERE ARE few aphorisms quite as brilliantly evocative as the phrase Isaac Newton famously used to explain …

INNOVATION TALK:THERE ARE few aphorisms quite as brilliantly evocative as the phrase Isaac Newton famously used to explain his success: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

It concisely captures the process of scientific discovery, which relies on the accumulation of information and the iteration of theories based on previous research – learning constantly from the giants of knowledge-gathering past.

There is, however, one element of the scientific method that the phrase doesn’t address – progress comes not just from standing on the shoulders of giants, but also from observing how and why other giants have fallen down. In terms of scientific research, the breakthroughs are, in theory, only slightly more valuable than the failures, which cumulatively contribute to enlarging the body of knowledge.

But not every realm of life is as predisposed towards acknowledging the value of failed endeavours as science tends to be – we are not, after all, given to taking pride in our mistakes or making a big noise about our failures. Culturally, we celebrate the heroes and castigate the zeroes, though very often only a fine line separates the two.

From school to sport to our careers, we are instilled with the notion that failure is bad and needs to be avoided. There’s a reason the phrase “epic fail” quickly gained cultural currency as one of the more cutting judgments to be thrown around, a dismissive verdict for everything from drunken dancefloor tumbles to skateboard crashes to corporate incompetence. The reality, of course, is that failure in some form is inevitable – it’s how we deal with it that matters.

It is significant, then, that one prominent community is increasingly putting a value on discussing failure and in the process removing the taboo that surrounds it.

Earlier this month I wrote on these pages about the vibrant technology start-up scene in Berlin, and was struck by many aspects of the culture there – the energy, ambition, solidarity and self-confidence on display is highly impressive. However, one of the recurring themes in my conversations with the young entrepreneurs there was the recognition that some level of failure was inevitable and the importance of learning from it. Far from feeling shame over their unsuccessful ventures, many entrepreneurs felt it was the most important ingredient in their subsequent success.

Has failure’s time come? It’s not about having a licence to fail, but about accepting the reality that not everything succeeds, and this realisation has given rise to one of the most well-received tech conferences of recent years – the annual Fail Conference, which started in San Francisco in 2009.

It was started by event organiser Cass Phillipps, who became frustrated with hearing the same success stories all the time. Instead, she thought it might be more constructive to hear about what can go wrong, and there’s a lot more than can go wrong than can go right.

Initially, Phillipps says, she encountered some resistance – “I got dozens from complete strangers saying ‘Why are you encouraging failure?’ ‘Why are you talking about this? It’s so discouraging to the industry’,” Phillipps told Wired magazine – but the idea resonated, and the conference has since gone global. This year there will be FailCons in San Francisco, France, Brazil, Singapore, Sydney and, of course, Berlin.

This is symptomatic of a cultural shift, which can also be seen in that slightly nauseating business mantra “fail fast, fail smart” that has become so widespread.

But one of the defining characteristics of Silicon Valley, the innovation centre of the world, is a highly tolerant attitude towards failure – young entrepreneurs are expected to get through one or two failed start-ups before hitting on the right blend of idea, effort and luck.

It’s ingrained in the culture; there is no shame or stigma attached to failure because it’s seen as the necessary corollary of risk-taking. (In Silicon Valley, unlike the risk-taking seen on Wall Street, it’s not the taxpayers ultimately picking up the tab – in those circumstances, learning from failure becomes considerably less urgent.)

One of the most widely misquoted pearls of wisdom is George Santayana’s line that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In general, I suspect that “embracing” our failures and deliberately learning from them can improve all aspects of our lives, from our political and social culture to our personal lives. Individually and collectively, learning from what we’re doing wrong is fundamental if we want to start doing things right.

In our political process, tribunals of inquiry deliver damning reports and special committees publish scathing conclusions.

Lessons must be learnt, goes the slogan. But this process is usually mere political theatre, an institutionalised form of punishment rather than an attempt to really learn from past errors.

As is so often the case, the technology community is ahead of the curve. In constructively acknowledging the importance of failure, and in removing the shame from making mistakes and the stigma that goes along with it, they are improving the likelihood of success. We would all do well to heed that lesson.