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How to fail properly and often

March 19, 2019
close up of hands hammering a nail, with a thumb covered in bandages and bent nails all around.“What could I have done differently? What elements should I tweak? How might I do this in a totally different way next time? What should I throw out?” Julia Maddox, director of the iZone in Rush Rhees Library wants to encourage students to fail, and fail well. (Getty Images photo)

Julia Maddox, director of the University’s Barbara J. Burger iZone, which opened its doors this past fall inside Rush Rhees Library, talks about creating a safe space for students to try things, and fail, while reducing the pressure to have to succeed all the time. The collaborative hub helps students image and explore ideas and solve problems that have a social, cultural, community, or economic impact.The 12,000-square foot space is named after Barbara Burger ’83, an alumna and trustee of the University of Rochester, whose lifelong passion for libraries and innovation inspired her support.

portrait of Julia Maddox

“Sometimes we just need permission to be the one that’s going to innovate, to be the one who’s going to do something exciting, and radical, and out of the box. iZone is here to give you that permission, along with our help.” Julia Maddox, director of the iZone. (University photo / J. Adam Fenster)

You regularly host “Screw-Up Nights” at the iZone. Why?

We embrace failure as a natural part of the innovation process. We bring in deans and executives and have them share their own stories of big failure. We name it, we celebrate it, and we laugh at it. We encourage ourselves to fail as often and as quickly as we possibly can, rather than spend months and months working on a wonderful, but futile idea.

How about your own failures?

I am an expert at it. I explored a few small businesses—all of which tanked. Astronomically. One of them was a popsicle business in Seattle, which I started in January. You can draw your own conclusion as to why that one failed. I actually got the idea from a friend who lived in Atlanta and for some reason I thought the concept would transfer to a much colder climate.

What did you do wrong, apart from the obvious?

I could have been much more experimental and iterative and learned way quicker what a terrible idea it was. Literally, I could have gone to the store, bought popsicles, and tried out my cool distributive sales model without investing in all the equipment. I could have done a survey to actually see whether Seattleites wanted popsicles in their lives. Even better, I could have started by finding a problem to solve and tested out different ways to solve it.

Why is it important to teach students about failing?

Many of our high-achieving students aren’t used to it. Some of it is due to the generational norm, frankly. This is a generation of students that came up in the recession and they know how competitive it is out there. They know that they have to work extremely hard to be successful, just to pay off their student loans. This culture here and at other elite universities is one of perfectionism. At iZone we challenge students to recognize that failure is their friend, not their enemy. Not only does embracing it make us more confident, and more pleasant to be around when we laugh about our own shortcomings in an honest way, it also shows we care about improving ourselves, our team, our community.

Why does speed matter?

The faster we try and fail, and try and fail again, the faster we can iterate, until we get it right. There’s nothing more demoralizing than sinking your heart and soul into an idea, risking relationships, convincing everyone it is brilliant—and then have it tank. No better way to take the wind out of your sails. But if you set yourself up for incremental trials and experiments, and shots in the dark, and learn very quickly which parts work and which don’t, get that feedback, and reflect and go on—then all of a sudden you’ll find yourself caring much more about the problem and less about a particular idea or plan. Being comfortable with failure, ultimately, sets us up for success—especially our perfectionist, very capable students. It means recognizing that it’s not the end of the world when things don’t go our way. Instead it’s an opportunity to ask, “What could I have done differently? What elements should I tweak? How might I do this in a totally different way next time? What should I throw out?”

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Category: Society & Culture

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