Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Necessity of Failure

Welcome back to part two of my series on TEDxUNC! If you missed part one, you can check it out here.

Only a few short minutes after we all settled into our seats for an afternoon of inspiration, we were caught by surprise. You wouldn’t think a conference about innovation & the future would start with a discussion of failure, but that’s exactly what we did.

Let me explain.

Our emcee, Dennis Whittle, framed the day with a story about the birth of Angry Birds. Before we all knew the sound of birds crashing into pigs, the designers at Rovio experienced 52 failed attempts to create a compelling product. Off the top of my head, I can think of only one other person who’s failed that many (or more) times at the same thing and he ultimately came up with 1,000 ways NOT to make a light bulb.

“The name of the game is experimentation,” said Whittle. “Reflecting on failure is one of the things that distinguishes successful people, companies, and countries.” Experimentation, risk, chance, luck: these are all things that are a critical part of innovation…and of being human.

This year, one of our supplemental essay prompts asked our applicants to tell us about a time they failed. We’ve read and are still reading lots of stories about lots of different experiences, but you’ve all come to a common conclusion:

It’s okay to fail.

As humans, it’s good for us to experience disappointment. In the second half of the program, Dan Ariely talked about the things that both hinder and enhance our capacity for creativity. One of those hindrances is the human tendency to seek instant gratification and instant success. But when we take the time to develop a skill or to work at something over and over and over – whether it be learning to play the viola or wrestling with differential equations – we tap into our inherent resources of perseverance, determination, and our capacity for struggle. The results can be downright astounding.

The other day, I saw a picture that I think really illustrates this concept:

 Creativity and innovation happen when our fear of failure is overridden by our capacity to ask “What if?” and to wonder “If only.” John McGowan encouraged us to “say yes more than no” – it is in the experimentation, the risk, and the taking of chances that we find relationships between ideas and between ourselves and the world. It is where we find true connection; by opening ourselves to the possibility of failure, we open ourselves to the possibility of transformative progress.

A few years ago, Winston Crisp, our Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, came to speak to our staff as part of our reader training. At the time, he was with our Office of the Dean of Students and the topic was the University Honor Code and how we handle cases where students disclose infractions – both minor and major – on their application for admission. His perspective then applies to those shared at TEDxUNC: it’s not necessarily whether or not we screw up – it’s utterly human to do so – but the true test of our character is how we deal with it.

When you trip and fall, do you sit on the ground and cry? Or do you get up, dust yourself off, and keep walking?

So keep on walking. And enjoy the journey: it’s just as important – if not more so – than the destination.

Addendum: I originally drafted this post before this week’s games vs. Duke. The morning after Wednesday’s last second 3pt shot, my work-study Tasia and I took a few minutes to talk about her first UNC-Duke basketball game on campus. When I shared with her this post and questions above, she said, “This isn’t a time to walk. This is a time to RUN.” 

Get your shoes on. 

Melissa Kotačka
Assistant Director of Admissions
Follow and/or tweet at me: @makunc