Peter Sims' IF Video: "Entrepreneurs Think of Failure the Way Most People Think of Learning"
Entrepreneurs think of failure the way most people think of learning - Peter Sims
Pulled from the IdeaFestival video vault, "Little Bets" author Peter Sims describes a creative approach to business success during his 2012 talk. It's offered in full here.
You'll hear a few ideas that resonated with me. One, “having the answer for everything is disempowering.”
Secondly, an “illusion of rationality” prevents optimal outcomes because instead of being open to the errors needed to get there, people will seek the data to support their points.
Real breakthroughs simply cannot be predicted.
And Sims relays an idea by Jerry Seinfeld on the high wire act of stand-up comedy that appeals to me: “comedy comes closest to justice.” To the extend that comedy reveals the essential nature of any situation, I like the idea that experimenters in business world can make their way toward a better, more authentic product or service through trial and error or a series of little bets.
The new digital magazine Nautilus offers an essay by physicist and author David Deutsch, who describes the peculiar logic of failure, or why an openness to being wrong can make better outcomes more likely.
His essay was one of Nautilus' "Best of 2013," according to the online magazine.
Beginning with the logical paradoxes of fallibility, Deutsch describes the nature of error and eventually touches on how civil systems address it.
We used to think that there was a way to organize ourselves that would minimize errors. This [claim] has been part of every tyranny since time immemorial, from the 'divine right of kings' to centralized economic planning.
...We can hope to detect and eliminate error if we set up traditions of criticism—substantive criticism, directed at the content of ideas, not their sources, and directed at whether they solve the problems that they purport to solve.... Our systems of checks and balances are steeped in traditions—such as freedom of speech and of the press, elections, and parliamentary procedures, the values behind concepts of contract and of tort—that survive not because they are deferred to but precisely because they are not: They themselves are continually criticized, and either survive criticism (which allows them to be adopted without deference) or are improved (for example, when the franchise is extended, or slavery abolished). Democracy, in this conception, is not a system for enforcing obedience to the authority of the majority. In the bigger picture, it is a mechanism for promoting the creation of consent, by creating objectively better ideas, by eliminating errors from existing ones.
It's a straightforward point. Participants in civil society consent to these checks and balances because, over time, this imperfect system tends to weed out the really bad ideas, and improve on the good ones.
The fact is, we get it wrong. And we get it wrong in part because even individual experience is mediated. For example, our eyes, which psychologist and former IdeaFestival speaker Daniel Simons demonstrates in his work with invisible gorillas, are more than capable of leading us astray. The argument isn't that ultimate truths outside our perception don't exist, but that our apprehension of those truths is necessarily a shaky one that calls for a certain humbleness of thought.
So when it comes to worthwhile innovation, a willingness to get it wrong is indispensable. There are no fool proof systems that can protect individuals or organizations. The only question is this one: how will we fail? By engaging in a rear guard action against that possibility, or by failing forward, knowing that mistake and error are baked into any system, office or person, and discovering something new in the process?
And if you're of a mood, now might be a good time to read, or re-read, Walt Whitman's short and masterful poem, "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." The poet probably never imagined that we might one day "look back in perfect silence" at our home.
If you’re working on something important, then you’ll never feel ready. A side effect of doing challenging work is that you’re pulled by excitement and pushed by confusion at the same time.
You’re bound to feel uncertain, unprepared, and unqualified. But let me assure you of this: what you have right now is enough. You can plan, delay, and revise all you want, but trust me, what you have now is enough to start.
Because creators actively cultivate a skepticism about their own doubt, which means that they don't let the fear of failure stop them from actually falling down from time to time, they're able to put self-doubt in context. That's an important skill that any entrepreneur or artist can appreciate. There's a certain risk tolerance that characterizes every successful person, regardless of temperament. Here, I really like what Susan Cain says:
Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it's a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.
But equally important in my view is that truly successful people also maintain an equilibrium that avoids another problem altogether, that of "performancism." The internal drive that puts fear in its place also knows achievement is a personal thing.
“Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” James Thurber
I've been thinking lately about the importance of curiosity as a habit of mind.
Over time many IdeaFestival presenters have spoken anecdotally about the psychology of creativity, and of risk and failure and fear, of the characteristics of successful creators and what "success" in that context means. I'm thinking specifically of the many artists that Creative Capital and Art Without Walls have brought to the festival, as well as "Little Bets" author Peter Sims. For artists and entrepreneurs a certain psychology must prevail in order to create. Successful artists and entrepreneurs think differently, and one of those habits of thought, I believe, is an ability to entertain doubt and fear without being immobilized by doubt and fear.
In a recent article, psychologist Douglas Eby, who often writes about the psychology of creativity, talked about recognizing fear for what it is.
[Robert] Maurer [a UCLA clinical psychologist] notes, 'If you find the right relationship, does fear go away? No. You publish your first novel, does that make fear go away? No. So your skill at being able to nourish yourself and give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them is your single greatest attribute as an artist and as a human being.'
Fear is good. We view fear as a disease. It’s not a disease.
Insofar as it tells us that something is amiss, fear is just information. The danger for creatives, or for anyone else for that matter, is when it becomes a pathology. Elsewhere, Eby quotes the late actor Jack Lemmon, who said that "Failure seldom stops you. What stops you is the fear of failure." What successful artists and entrepreneurs do so well is to become comfortable with failure, by which I mean they recognize that failure is a temporary state and that efforts to avoid that state not only don't work, they stifle the curiosity needed to create in the first place. Worse, if failure has become a feeling, those efforts may well shut the door on a different self-understanding.
Creatives manage perhaps to cultivate a skepticism about their own doubt. Recognizing their fear, one of the habits of mind of innovators is to avoid ruminative thought and to focus, when they're stuck, on the answers they can provide. They work on the ability to re-frame the situation or, simply, to ask a better question.
Related, comedian and writer Ruby Wax talks about practical steps toward "taming" the anxious mind beginning about the 8:30 mark in this RSA video. Give it a watch.
A psychology of creativity would also include, as Jonathan Fields so aptly put it, an ability "to live in the question" long enough to avoid the easy outs.
Thanks for reading along this year! I'll talk to you in 2014.