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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Making Failure Fruitful

Samuel Smiles was the original "self-help" author.  His most famous book, oddly enough, was entitled Self-Help.  The book catapulted him to literary stardom in early nineteenth century Great Britain.  He became a self-help guru and consultant before such things were imagined.  

Smiles is quoted (without attribution) thousands of times daily.  In his biography of the railroad pioneer George Stephenson, Smiles wrote, "We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”  

Of course, the quote is often reforged into something like, "We learn more from our failures than from our successes."  This is part of the premise of the new book by Sarah Lewis, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (Simon and Schuster, 2014).  Lewis is a highly engaging writer.  And she has the gift (which I greatly admire) of putting together odd and apparently unrelated stories into compelling essays.

I told my spouse I was reading a book on failure, and she appeared concerned for my mental health.  This book is something other than that.  Lewis reflects on the power of the "near win" to motivate mastery.  She reminds us of the dangers of success--particularly the danger that we will return to what has worked in the past even when a better solution is now available.  And she reminds us of the necessity for gritty courage in the face of criticism.

She reminds me that hope is essentially a creative process.  "Agency comes," she writes, from the convergent and divergent thinking that the creative process requires."  Agency is one of the elements of real hope.  The discovery and/or construction of alternative pathways to the future is another of the elements of real hope.  So hope depends on having the conscious capacity to envision alternative ways to future goals.

Lewis notes that creativity training is the most de-funded aspect of education in our society.  Time spent on the arts and humanities does not result in increases on state-mandated proficiency tests.  So the money is put elsewhere.  "With the recent decline in our investment in the arts and education," she notes, "we are smarter, yet less equipped to find novel approaches to problems.

So we are producing smarter people who are increasingly desperate.  Desperation narrows both perceptual and cognitive abilities.  So the intelligence is then applied with greater and greater energy only to the familiar responses to problems.  So, for example, our response to crime is increasing the levels of legal violence rather than exploring alternative responses.

I was puzzled by how Lewis' perspective might interact with the framework of Appreciative Inquiry.  Does an unstintingly positive approach to organizational life actually narrow our options rather than widen them?

No, I don't think so.  It is not the case that we learn from failure as such.  Failure is just failure.  What we do after we fail is the real question.  Does a failed experiment allow us to shift our focus to a different solution?  That is the real core of Lewis' conversation.  So she points to Samuel F. B. Morse.  Morse spent a lifetime struggling as an artist.  And he invented the modern telegraph.  Did the one reality lead to the other?

Studying failure can lead to a narrow problem orientation.  Using failure to break open our perceptions and engage our appreciative and creative vision is an entirely different thing. Lewis puts it this way:
When someone thinks they understand something, the mind edits reality so efficiently that errors can be hard to perceive, but when someone observes a scenario they are unfamiliar with, a part of the brain operates inefficiently, giving us time to see the outliers and consider their significance. (page 162).
We do in fact learn wisdom from our failures, if we are brave enough to pay attention. 

The book is The Rise: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).

Monday, August 18, 2014

Yesterday's Message at Emanuel