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.
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.
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.