19 November 2008

Failure is not an option

This cartoon by Hugh MacLeod smacked me on the nose when I saw it on his blog last week. 

I'm a big fan of Hugh, especially his ideas about "How to Be Creative" and "Social Objects as the Future of Marketing." But this cartoon hit a nerve.

A lifetime ago, I had just started working for a magazine in the photonics industry. I was a skilled journalist and had an abiding interest in science and technology but my month or two reading & writing about photonics hardly made me an 'expert.' And yet, that's what journalists have to be, in essence: Instant experts on whatever topic they're assigned in any given day, and a different topic every day. That's what drove me into journalism when dad wanted me to go on to law school. How cool is a job where you get to keep learning every day of your career?

Burned out in the newspaper business after a few too many of those obligatory calls to the family of the kid who was killed by the drunken driver, I went into technology journalism, where I'd always hoped to end up. So I was two months into a very technical new area of expertise when a contributed article fell through -- a week before the print deadline. 

Every trade magazine editor in the world knows the sickening feeling that comes from staring at three to five empty pages of text with no way to fill it. And thus, the Senior Editor called a quick hallway meeting to announce The Big Problem. Not understanding the panic, I offered a solution: "Why don't I just write something to fill the space?"

My exuberance was borne of 10 years in the daily newspaper business, whereas my colleagues' pessimistic frowns were products of life in the monthly magazine world. To me, five empty pages meant 10 phone calls to technical experts, a couple of days of typing, and a quick editorial review. As doubtful as my colleagues were, they saw no other options. 

And yet, the publisher had to voice one last pessimistic query: "But what if you fail?"

(With my 20/20 hindsight, I know this moment was the initial salvo from the energy vampire I would battle for most of the next seven years.)

"I won't fail," I said, shrugging. "And if I do -- which I won't -- you'll be no worse off than you are right now, with five pages of house ads to make up for the missing article."

There's a scary place between your comfort zone & failure. You know that place -- it's right there where you doubt your success. In that place, a wall pops up, and on the wall is a sign: "You are too stupid to do this." This is where some people fail, and learn that even if people laugh at their failure, they will live through it. And maybe they also "learn" that they are stupid. "Oh, I'm not good at math." "Oh, I just can't draw." "Oh I tried that and I failed, so I don't do it anymore." But other people knock the damn sign down and find some crazy way to get over/under/around/past that wall. And maybe we are never the very best in the world at that one thing, but we do just fine, thanks.

And so I didn't fail. I called the experts, I did my interviews, I wrenched my brain into a knot until I understood what they told me about ultraviolet detectors, and if one expert wasn't available, I called another one. Because it never occurs to me that failure might be an option. 

Today, more than 10 years after that impromptu hallway meeting, I printed out Hugh's cartoon and hung it on my wall at the Much Better Place where I work now. But I scribbled a quote from a favorite movie next to the guy on the left. It says, "Laugh while you can, monkey boy."

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