Thursday, January 21st, 2010

My Year of Failure

My Year of Failure
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That’s right… I’m going to fail this year. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t really want to fail. Truth be told, it’s the kind of thing that completely messes with my head. Even contemplating doing so makes my uneasy, but I worry about the consequences of doing otherwise.

Wait a second… I’m getting ahead of myself. All this talk of failure has me trailing away when I really should take you back a couple of steps. Let’s do that:

I’ve been like this for a while


I have some obsessive characteristics. A few of these go back to when I was a kid. I’d establish rituals with the thought that failure to do so was somehow linked to perilous outcomes. This meant that while waiting for the boat to pull me waterskiing, I’d wipe one corner of my eye, then the other, then match the other side, and then repeat, so that the sides would be “even.” Sadly, in my mind, even this felt out of balance, so I’d duplicate the entire set of actions again in reverse. I’d then mirror all of those, ad infinitum, or until my dad asked, “Eric, what the hell are you doing?”

This may seem somewhat obsessive compulsive, which perhaps it is; nevertheless, such leanings have also served me well. I can, from several feet away, spot a layout that’s a pixel out of alignment. I have a predilection for finding order in chaos, and I naturally look to build systems that enable greater efficiency. Most of the time, these tendencies are quite agreeable, as they help me do my job well. They also have some substantial drawbacks.

Perfection

As I write this, I find a bit from the film Trainspotting running through my mind.  In it, Spud is nervous about an interview, so he takes some speed. Upon being asked of any shortcomings, he pauses for a moment before starting to blather, “Oh, yes, ‘cause, like, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, actually! Yes, I am. See, for me, it’s got to be the best, or it’s nothing at all.”

Tangents aside, I admit that my desire to find the perfect form (or logic) for any given thing doesn’t always make things easy. It means that I’ll periodically choose to reorganize the house from top to bottom, only to find myself embroiled in a weeks-long process of trying to find the best way to sort and store all our possessions.

Opening a file folder on the server that’s sloppily organized will send me into fits as I struggle to find a document. And when I wrote my book—which you really should have ordered by now—I spent countless hours researching the most appropriate use of punctuation and syntax, painstakingly trying to ensure that it was applied well throughout. Still, it drives me rather batty to know that there are slips in that text.

Breakdown

Part of my approach (or perhaps affliction) is to create rules, structure, and double-checks around things wherever possible. These things tend to work quite well, but there are costs to them.

The greatest one is time. The effort to achieve a zero failure status is in fact quite time consuming. All the double checks, redundancy, and contingency plans can reduce failure and even save time (labeling files appropriately, for example, limits grief in the long run). It can also be a time-suck of epic proportions.

For example, in an effort to remain respectful of others, I respond to all email I receive. Until about a month ago, I’d get back to anyone on any topic, so long as it wasn’t spam. In ways, I still see this as a good thing as I believe that if someone (even a person I’ve never met) takes the time to email me, I should at very least respond to them. The problem is simply one of scaling. When you get one request for a student interview a month, it’s pretty easy to squeeze that in. Get one a day, and all of a sudden you’ve committed 13% of your working time to fulfilling these obligations.

Time, however, isn’t the only problem associated with this desire to do things “right.” It can also make me difficult to work with, challenging to live with, and perhaps even a bit of a drag.

Acceptable rates of failure

Not so long ago, I started to ask if this compulsion to “get things right” had simply outlived its usefulness. There’s a time in your life when accuracy and detail is awfully important. (Few would want to hire a designer who continually screws up a job due to sloppy preflighting.) It seems equally conceivable that there’s a stage at which such impulses are largely emotional crutches that must be reigned in.

Creating a website that’s error free should certainly be what a web studio aims for, but it may not be entirely realistic. Things go wrong, technologies change, and variables can become difficult to account for. Sure, you’d like it to be perfect every time, but that may not be practical. At some point it needs to “ship,” and a few errors simply might just have to be stomached in order to do so.

For some time I worked at a small newspaper. We often had subscribers call in and remark on a spelling error they found. I always found that funny. That paper would sometimes measure in excess of 70 pages. Think about putting together a document that large with a relatively small staff; then remember that it’s done daily. Of course there are errors, but if they waited until it was perfect to print it, they’d never have shipped anything.

We’re taught our whole lives to avoid failure, with the exception of a few business writers who will wax poetic about learning more from failure than success. While the latter is a little bright eyed, the former is simply unrealistic. Everything fails, and mostly in “less than profound” ways. Look around you; everything you see will at some point fail. It’s just a matter of time. Your toaster, your razor, your computer, your electric company, your government, perhaps even your planet: things break all around us. So what’s the big deal if a spelling mistake slips into that proposal you’re readying?

Working with what we’ve got

The truth of the matter, is that in spite of inevitable failure, there’s a lot to be gained from most things in the interim. I complain like crazy about our car when it breaks down, but the time saving it provides my wife in moving our kids around is substantial. I quibble about my frustration surrounding bugs and issues with my computer, yet without it I’d be left unable to do much of my work. The issue isn’t one of whether things will fail (they will), it’s one of which failure you can live with.

I’ll admit it, my desire to avoid and minimize failure limits me. This isn’t news, it’s just one of those things that I’ve had to chew on for a while, in order to determine a way of dealing with the situation. This year I’m going to make a conscious effort to accept more failure, with the belief that it may help direct effort into the most worthy areas. Although this plan is incomplete, it’s what I’m starting with. And if it doesn’t work? Well, that would be almost poetic, wouldn’t it?

In order to fail well, I’m going to start by determining what few items I’m unwilling to bend on. In doing so, I hope that I’ll be able to better gauge which things I can “let go” on a little. For example, the safety of my family is very important; hence, regular car maintenance is something that needs to happen. Cleaning out the area under the kitchen sink? Perhaps not so pressing. Similarly, the financial stability of our studio is important. As such, concentrating on continual business development needs to remain focal (no matter how unpalatable it may be); ensuring that every layer in a Photoshop document is perfectly labeled? Well, you know where I’m going here.

Aside from taking the time to determine clearer goals, I’m going to try to do some things that seem like anathema to my way of living. Frankly, when I spot a typo in a smashLAB project, I tend to flip out. Truth is, though, most will will never even notice. Perhaps in order to get the right things done, I have to remind myself of this, more often. I’m coupling this reminder with a bit of “deal with it when it needs to be dealt with.” We often plan for contingencies that never come to pass. How much benefit can be had by thinking less about potential consequences, and instead dealing with those that do arise?

More than all of these is something I’ve tried to embrace repeatedly. It is the desire for less. Being rather ambitious and detail oriented, I tend to opt in to big projects, and then obsess about carrying through on them precisely. Although this is something I don’t intend to change completely, the writing is on the wall: continuing to do so necessitates letting some of the other things slide.

My first act of failure

I recognize that this post is perhaps less pointed and more personal than the writing I typically do here. You’ll have to treat this one as a “gimme”—I’m trying to share something that I think is relevant, even if I’m not doing so particularly well. At the same time, I bet that you’ve felt similar things at times, and perhaps there’s something here that might be relevant to you as well.

My year of failure starts today, with the note that I’m walking away from ideasonideas for a while—not forever, but certainly for a bit. In the meanwhile, if you can’t bear my absence, you can buy my book or watch some videos.



My Year of Failure


That’s right… I’m going to fail this year. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t really want to fail. Truth be told, it’s the kind of thing that completely messes with my head. Even contemplating doing so makes my uneasy, but I worry about the consequences of doing otherwise.

Wait a second… I’m getting ahead of myself. All this talk of failure has me trailing away when I really should take you back a couple of steps. Let’s do that:

I’ve been like this for a while

I have some obsessive characteristics. A few of these go back to when I was a kid. I’d establish rituals with the thought that failure to do so was somehow linked to perilous outcomes. This meant that while waiting for the boat to pull me waterskiing, I’d wipe one corner of my eye, then the other, then match the other side, and then repeat, so that the sides would be “even.” Sadly, in my mind, even this felt out of balance, so I’d duplicate the entire set of actions again in reverse. I’d then mirror all of those, ad infinitum, or until my dad asked, “Eric, what the hell are you doing?”

This may seem somewhat obsessive compulsive, which perhaps it is; nevertheless, such leanings have also served me well. I can, from several feet away, spot a layout that’s a pixel out of alignment. I have a predilection for finding order in chaos, and I naturally look to build systems that enable greater efficiency. Most of the time, these tendencies are quite agreeable, as they help me do my job well. They also have some substantial drawbacks.

Perfection

As I write this, I find a bit from the film Trainspotting running through my mind.  In it, Spud is nervous about an interview, so he takes some speed. Upon being asked of any shortcomings, he pauses for a moment before starting to blather, “Oh, yes, ‘cause, like, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, actually! Yes, I am. See, for me, it’s got to be the best, or it’s nothing at all.”

Tangents aside, I admit that my desire to find the perfect form (or logic) for any given thing doesn’t always make things easy. It means that I’ll periodically choose to reorganize the house from top to bottom, only to find myself embroiled in a weeks-long process of trying to find the best way to sort and store all our possessions.

Opening a file folder on the server that’s sloppily organized will send me into fits as I struggle to find a document. And when I wrote my book—which you really should have ordered by now—I spent countless hours researching the most appropriate use of punctuation and syntax, painstakingly trying to ensure that it was applied well throughout. Still, it drives me rather batty to know that there are slips in that text.

Breakdown

Part of my approach (or perhaps affliction) is to create rules, structure, and double-checks around things wherever possible. These things tend to work quite well, but there are costs to them.

The greatest one is time. The effort to achieve a zero failure status is in fact quite time consuming. All the double checks, redundancy, contingency plans can reduce failure and even save time (labeling files appropriately, for example, saves time in the long run). It can also be a time-suck of epic proportions.

For example, in an effort to remain respectful of others, I respond to all email I receive. Until about a month ago, I’d get back to you on any topic, so long as it wasn’t spam. In ways, I still see this as a good thing as I believe that if someone (even a person I’ve never met) takes the time to email me, I should at very least respond to them. The problem is simply one of scaling. When you get one request for a student interview a month, it’s pretty easy to squeeze that in. Get one a day, and all of a sudden you’ve committed 13% of your working time to fulfilling these obligations.

Time, however, isn’t the only problem associated with this desire to do things “right.” It can also make me difficult to work with, challenging to live with, and perhaps even a bit of a drag.

Acceptable rates of failure

Not so long ago, I started to ask if this compulsion to “get things right” had simply outlived its usefulness. There’s a time in your life when accuracy and detail is awfully important. (Few would want to hire a designer who continually screws up a job due to sloppy preflighting.) It seems equally conceivable that there’s a stage at which such impulses are largely emotional crutches that must be reigned in.

Creating a website that’s error free should certainly be what a web studio aims for, but it may not be entirely realistic. Things go wrong, technologies change, and variables can become difficult to account for. Sure, you’d like it to be perfect every time, but that may not be practical. At some point it needs to “ship,” and a few errors simply might just have to be stomached in order to do so.

For some time I worked at a small newspaper. We often had subscribers call in and remark on a spelling error they found. I always found that funny. That paper would sometimes measure in excess of 70 pages. Think about putting together a document that large with a relatively small staff; then remember that it’s done daily. Of course there are errors, but if they waited until it was perfect to print it, they’d never have shipped anything.

We’re taught our whole lives to avoid failure, with the exception of a few business writers who will wax poetic about learning more from failure than success. While the latter is a little bright eyed, the former is simply unrealistic. Everything fails, and mostly in “less than profound” ways. Look around you; everything you see will at some point fail. It’s just a matter of time. Your toaster, your razor, your computer, your electric company, your government, perhaps even your planet: things break all around us. So what’s the big deal if a spelling mistake slips into that proposal you’re readying?

Working with what we’ve got

The truth of the matter, is that in spite of inevitable failure, there’s a lot to be gained from in the interim. I complain like crazy about our car when it breaks down, but the time saving it provides my wife in moving our kids around is substantial. I quibble about my frustration surrounding bugs and issues with my computer, yet without it I’d be left unable to do much of my work. The issue isn’t one of whether things will fail (they will), it’s one of which failure you can live with.

I’ll admit it, my desire to avoid and minimize failure limits me. This isn’t news, it’s just one of those things that I’ve had to chew on for a while, in order to determine a way of dealing with the situation. This year I’m going to make a conscious effort to accept more failure, with the belief that it may help direct effort into the most worthy areas. Although this plan is incomplete, it’s what I’m starting with. And if it doesn’t work? Well, that would be almost poetic, wouldn’t it?

In order to fail well, I’m going to start by determining what few items I’m unwilling to bend on. In doing so, I hope that I’ll be able to better gauge which things I can “let go” on a little. For example, the safety of my family is very important; hence, regular car maintenance is something that needs to happen. Cleaning out the area under the kitchen sink? Perhaps not so pressing. Similarly, the financial stability of our studio is important. As such, concentrating on continual business development needs to remain a focal (no matter how unpalatable it may be); ensuring that every layer in a Photoshop document is perfectly labeled? Well, you know where I’m going here.

Aside from taking the time to determine clearer goals, I’m going to try to do some things that seem like anathema to my way of living. Frankly, when I spot a typo in a smashLAB project, I tend to flip out. Truth is, though, most will will never even notice. Perhaps in order to get the right things done, I have to remind myself of this, more often. I’m coupling this reminder with a bit of “deal with it when it needs to be dealt with.” We often plan for contingencies that never come to pass. How much benefit can be had by thinking less about potential consequences, and instead dealing with those that do arise?

More than all of these is something I’ve tried to embrace repeatedly. It is the desire for less. Being rather ambitious and detail oriented, I tend to opt in to big projects, and then obsess about carrying through on them precisely. Although this is something I don’t intend to change completely, the writing is on the wall: continuing to do so necessitates letting some of the other things slide.

My first act of failure

I recognize that this post is perhaps less pointed and more personal than the writing I typically do here. You’ll have to treat this one as a “gimme”—I’m trying to share something that I think is relevant, even if I’m not doing so particularly well. At the same time, I bet that you’ve felt similar things at times, and perhaps there’s something here that might be relevant to you as well.

My year of failure starts today, with the note that I’m walking away from ideasonideas for a while—not forever, but certainly for a bit. In the meanwhile, if you can’t bear my absence, you can buy the book or watch some videos.


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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention ideasonideas - Eric Karjaluoto discusses design, brands and experience » Blog Archive » My Year of Failure -- Topsy.com

  2. Josh says:

    Really Eric? Did you and Armin make a pact to end both of the best design blogs?

    Though work comes first. Unfortunately this isn't Design Observer where the load can be shared. Heck just even this post is enough work, let alone all the other great ones that have posted.

    Good luck to you sir.

  3. First, we must accept failure as a part of life; all life fails at some point. By accepting failure we open ourselves to a broader comprehension of success. Failure, much like sadness is a precondition to living. One can only truly understand, gauge and appreciate success when failure has been experienced; much like sickness and health, sadness and happiness, old age and youth.

    I wish you the best Eric and I hope that you will continue writing here; one of the few blogs I really enjoy reading.

  4. David says:

    Good luck Eric, I've enjoyed reading your posts here so will look forward to your return. If you can write thousands of words on your blog, the least I can do is write a few in return, huh - so I just wanted to wish you all the best in focusing on what you need to focus on. Fare thee well!

  5. Matt Robin says:

    Perfectionism is a bitch, and failure utterly ruins it. So Eric, I hope you fail spectacularly, and enjoy yourself along the way! :)

    Also: I hope everyone with a pulse and a shred of common sense buys your book this year.

  6. Jessica Luch says:

    Aw man Eric, I've loved reading your blog, always filled with insight. Not stoked to find out you're going to stop posting. Hope to see you return soon and I wish you all the best!

  7. Ben says:

    Thanks champ. It's been swell.

  8. steph says:

    great article, good on you! i wholly empathise with you, i think i realised and echoed your sentiments not so long ago.

    ..."Truth is, though, most will will never even notice..."

    ...well some of those that did (like me) accept that mistakes are what make humans so interesting and special (i know, that last one was vomit-worthy, but this is what i believe).

  9. Vanessa says:

    Eric, this is my new favorite blog post of yours.
    [So it took me about 30 minutes to write this comment... I don't generally comment on blogs because I feel like what I have to say is probably not valuable enough to clog up some nice person's comment thread. If I feel that it's likely not different, funny or cool enough (which is basically all the time), I gracefully back away, er chicken out. Which after reading this seems like a bigger fail than not giving it a try once in a while. May fortune favour the bold this year!]

  10. Jonno Cohen says:

    Wow.

    It appears you and I have a lot in common - your description of your perfectionism almost perfectly depicts mine too.

    So I understand why you're stepping back from here, but I'm disappointed one of my favourite blogs is on pause.

    Thanks for the great posts, and good luck with your year of failure.

  11. Thanks for all the kind words--I really appreciate all the positive feedback!

    And (like I said in the post) this is a temporary thing. I really enjoy writing these posts and fully intend to return to them. Right now it's just a matter of clearing my plate so I can concentrate on a few things. :-)

  12. Clayton Misura says:

    Godspeed Eric, I'm looking forward to your next project!!

  13. arayans says:

    Eric,
    Loved this post! I guess a lot of people would have, like me, felt that they were reading about themselves.

    But..
    (yes, there's always a But)

    I'd rather look upon this post as something that a 35-40 year-old designer/person ought to refer to, and not students. As students, we need to be pesky and meticulous, and such a post may actually see a student wrongly deduce that, in the larger scheme of things, it is okay to generate output as opposed to spend time on (seemingly-)trivial things. Te truth is, we students need to be painstaking in our approach, and keep reinforcing our concern for small bits, so that it becomes a part of our system, and, by the time we get to 30 years of age, not making a mistake should have become a sub-conscious thing.
    Sadly, i see a few too many students around me who've been exposed to the the "this tiny mistake will go unnoticed, so don't bother about it" mentality, and it is quite unnerving.. i know that your post does not convey the same, and in-fact, if a reader were to observe well, what you've stated is exactly the opposite of a "it's OK" mentality - but am just expressing my concern.

    PS. We'll miss you! Your posts were a regular read for me, and often, i'd engage some fellow design students on discussions about them - will look forward to your return :)

  14. Good point--details can make or break a project; ignoring them can certainly come with some peril.

  15. Karthik says:

    Eric,

    It just amazes me that how on earth that you write an article that completely matches with my state of mind at that moment. It is eerie but at the same time comforting to know that someone's going through the exact same thing and it is ok for me to think that way. All the best to you for your 'failures' and will eagerly await your next post.

    Bye for now.

  16. Paul Winslow says:

    This is me to the core. Every word.

    Great post. Really enjoying the book, also.

  17. SJL Perth says:

    Great article, could really connect to a lot of your points, I especially enjoyed reading your reference to the trainspotting interview!

  18. Blair Enns says:

    Great move, and as a result, great post.

    You might be interested in David Baker's Special Message to Control Freaks (http://www.recourses.com/2010i) especially his own experience with borderline OCD.

    The free-est animal in the world is the snake that has just shed his skin. I always wished I could do that. Reinvent your business, reinvent your life, reinvent your behaviour, move your office to a tree.

    Blogs aren't life sentences. Knock it down, mix it up, do something different. Attachment is suffering; life is pain. Go Karj, go.

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