Monday, April 8, 2013

Failures and Successes

Fail fast.

Eighty percent of the "profits" (i.e., positive outcome) comes from just 20 percent of the work.

To have a great idea, you need to have 99 bad ideas.

I've been thinking about successes and failures. I like to think I'm pretty open about championing my own successes and moving on quickly from failures. Most of my "fails" aren't shrouded in shame, though, and I wanted to share some of them alongside some notes on why they were productive failures.

Women in Wikipedia. I had a vision to run a regular meet-up called Women in Wikipedia that would be a gathering of women in the New York area who would hang out and teach each other how to edit Wikipedia. The idea grew out of the statistic that the overwhelming majority of editors and writers of Wikipedia are men. I wanted to change that by encouraging a collaborative environment that brought together non-technical types who have a lot of knowledge to share about particular subject matters with technical people who could assist with the horrific pseudo-coding that's required to properly edit a Wikipedia article.

Although a lot of people expressed interest, getting them all together and organizing a fruitful event just didn't happen. The day of the first meet-up, I ended up just having a Skype call with one friend who humored by letting me talk her through setting up a Wikipedia profile page. For a one-on-one meet-up, I didn't have the material to move at a faster pace, as I had planned for a larger group that I knew would get caught up in discussion and asking questions--which is what I wanted.

I might return to this idea some day, but for now, it's in my failure drawer. To have one great idea, you have to have 99 bad ideas, and this was a poorly thought-out bad idea. In the future, I may try it again but as a different idea: different scope, different tone, different logistics. Now I just have to think of 96 other ways to change it up.

Fellowship to Germany. In September, I was invited to apply to a fellowship to Germany. I would be categorized as a journalist for the purpose of the fellowship. Ideally, they wanted someone with a master's degree, which I don't have, but the committee seemed to think I had enough work experience to make up for the lack of an MA.

I applied. I had to ask two of my bosses for letters of recommendation, which meant telling them, "I love working here, but I want to leave for a year and live and work in Germany," which to most people sounds like an admission of a lack of commitment to the company.

The interview process would evaluate whether any of the candidates had any German language skills. So I taught myself some German. It wasn't much, but the majority of candidates come in with zero German. I thought I could give myself a bump by knowing at least a few sentences of small talk.

Weeks of thought and focus went into my personal statement and application. And then one day in December, I got an email thanking me for my application and letting me know I was not selected for an interview.

Eighty percent of the profits come from 20 percent of the work. My application to the fellowship turned out to be part of that 80 percent of the work that yielded little to no profit. However, the act of applying forced me to reevaluate what it is I really want to do with my career, both in the short term and long term, as that was the emphasis of my personal statement. Plus, when I went to Berlin, I could order beer and coffee by myself.

The MA. Speaking of not having an MA... Fresh out of undergrad, I applied to four graduate programs and got into none of them. A few years later, I applied to San Francisco State University and was accepted. I went part time at night so I could keep my full-time job (which paid for 100 percent of the schooling). I got through all the coursework toward a master's degree in composition, focusing on matters of how technology influences people's ability to write, and only had to take the two required classes that are basically just weekly meetings for students as they research and write a thesis. The year I was to complete the program, I got the opportunity to move abroad. And I took it. In other words, I walked away from the nearly completed degree.

The motto "fail fast" means it's best to recognize a failure when you have one and not dwell on the time, money, energy, or other investments you've put into it to date. Acknowledge the sunk cost, and move on. Sure, there are times when you should stick it out, but in reality, those times happen to be extremely rare.

I wouldn't consider my leaving San Francisco State University a "failure" exactly, but to do it, I did need to simply walk away, despite all the investment I had put into it. Something better came up that was worth seizing. I do have the ability to reapply to the university and pick up where I left off, but it's very unlikely to happen any time soon.

I'm not hung up on any of these failures. They weren't fun, but I put them behind me quickly to focus my time and energy on more important things that were succeeding or ripe to succeed with a little coaxing. In fact, I'll have a very big success to share soon!


malito said...

Hi Jill,
Your exciting TED news drew me back to your excellent blog again - and to this post immediately underneath.
Your thoughts about the 99:1 ratio of duff ideas to good ones rang true with me. The place where I work, we are constantly berated for not being creative or innovative enough. Which is daft. Aside from the fact that 'Be more creative!' is not a very bright rallying cry from your seniors, it conflicts in my particular organisation with a second, even dimmer, catchphrase, that we should at all times 'avoid dropping the ball'. For me, the idea that mistakes are simply unacceptable stomps all over my creative instincts from the outset.
But to the reason I wanted to reply to your post - couldn't the misfiring of your Women in Wikipedia idea be put down to execution rather than the idea itself? So instead of trying to assemble a group of women specifically to talk about Wikipedia editing (which might be a bit dry, or may not attract a big audience on its own), couldn't you seek out a place where groups of women already meet, and offer the talk to them? Something like a Women's Business forum? The talk needn't be just about wikipedia - because you have loads of other insight into social media stuff - which could be a wider draw too.
Just a thought.

Jill E. Duffy said...

Those are all great points. We struggle to answer the question, "How do we foster creativity?" at work a few times a year, but mostly we're too busy cranking out work to step back and consider how we could be generating better ideas and taking more creative risks.

On the Wikipedia topic: Yes! Someone did point out to me that it would probably be better to organize an editing meet-up around some other social event, like happy hour at a quiet wine bar. All that coordination takes time as well as someone who's good at making social events happen (which is not my strong suit). I will probably try it again at a better time of year and using your feedback! I also like the idea of broadening the purpose.

Jill E. Duffy said...

Sometimes my friends post long comments on Facebook in response to a blog post. Here's one I wanted to share from D.A.G.: "...I ended up reading your post about failure and your idea to have women teach each other to edit Wikipedia. I've been to an edit-a-thon with a similar goal (+working to improve articles about women artists). Happy to chat more about successful models if you decide to pick up the idea again. See, for example:"

Post a Comment