Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for Contemplation


Tom Johnson’s Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass is a fascinating composition. It’s music and text that explore the idea of failure, and well worth the nine minutes you’ll invest in listening.

The piece popped into my head because of a conversation I had a couple of days ago. We were talking about the positive trend of people publically discussing failure. A few years ago it was surprisingly hard to find anyone going public with their thinking on the failure of a company, project, or feature, but it’s increasingly common to see some public thinking happening post-failure; it was noted, however, that these writeups tend to have a rather confessional character, and appear only after the lights have been turned out and the doors locked.

People tend to blog (or otherwise make public) the “hey, awesome stuff coming down the pike” stuff, and are increasingly willing to open up the “here’s how it all went off the rails” stuff after the fact, but there’s still a pretty big taboo against making public the little, inevitable, failures that happen along the way to either success or failure on the large scale. I can understand why that taboo exists, of course, but it’s still an interesting phenomenon.*

This idea stuck in my head because I’m currently in the process of failing to some degree, so it seems worthwhile to practice what I preach and get a little analysis out there.

It’s been an eventful four and a half months months for me, but the the component that’s most relevant here is that I’ve gone from a gleeful “I’m not working!” to a nonspecific “okay, I should really be working…on, ah, something…so now what?”

A part of this is pretty specific to me and my situation. Over the past few months it’s been very easy for me to fall into a line of thinking like this: my dad helped found an academic discipline, wrote and edited more than a dozen books, and made a real impact on the lives and careers of dozens, if not hundreds, of his students. On my side of the scale, I’ve figured out some ways to get people to click on emails more often. And made some Internet stuff that a few people kind of like. Hm. What was it I wanted to do, again? And why, exactly?

Where this applies to the general case is that it’s a mindset that exists in many forms, and it insidiously chips away at one’s ability to just do things. It turns out that the thing I built has already been done pretty well by someone else? Ah, I guess I won’t bother releasing it. That service’s API is set up in a way that means my idea would have to be a pretty iffy hack? Okay, I’ll put it on the metaphorical shelf for a while, not a big deal. With data plugged in, this service idea wouldn’t actually work the way I’d thought? Oh well, whatever, never mind.

The more entrepreneurial among you may well point out this is natural, and that the real issue is working through it. Execution matters more than ideas, it’s not always obvious up front which undertakings will be meaningful, nor is it clear where a given path will end up. Iterate. Pivot. So on.

But the formulation of this that’s helping me get through this is a little bit different. You see, I’ve never thought that I was particularly invested in being right. There is a geek archetype that knows the objectively right answer on everything—how to indent code, market a product, make coffee, whatever—and must also use that knowledge to correct those sad individuals who are in error. That approach to life bugs the shit out of me, so I’ve tried to focus on being right when I can and being wrong in interesting ways when I can’t.

The interesting realization for me is that I’ve been overlooking that model for a good while. I’ve been focused on trying to figure out the objectively right thing to do now, and that’s paralyzing. I now have to do something with this realization, of course, but it’s a start. I may not be right with what I do going forward, but I’m less worried about that than I was yesterday.

Thanks for listening. Go listen to the Tom Johnson piece now, if you haven’t.

* Though note that silence speaks volumes anyway, so a lot of individuals, startups, and smaller companies actually broadcast the fact, if not the details, of some sort of failure these days, when they suddenly go silent.