Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bringing Symmetry to "The Muscle of Failure"

For the record, the above title is not mine... I't taken straight from Dan Benjamin and Merlin Mann and it's from the podcast Back to Work #20, which shares the same title. Now, by the way I worded this, you might think that I was going to disagree with the podcast of the same title. I'm not. In fact, I'm in 100% agreement with it. I want to rebuke the phenomenon Dan and Merlin are describing.

First, if you have not heard the show yet, go listen to the show. It's great fun and very informative, although the show's banter does tend to reward those who are regular listeners (newcomers will have no idea that the "no, you're thinking of..." is a regular bit in the show, and is deliberately nonsensical). Anyway, this week's main point was the idea of "Getting Started" and overcoming the obstacles of getting started doing something. A metaphor was used in the podcast, and I think it's very apt... the Muscle of Failure.

Put simply, the muscle of failure is the idea that fear, resistance, and lack of confidence, over time, gets as much of a workout as anything positive that we do. If we work a muscle regularly, it will build. If we work a muscle over the amount we work others, we get a lopsided development (think of those guys in the gym with huge arms and pecs but skinny chicken legs). Similarly, we work on muscles that have a disproportionate effect on us frequently as well, many times not realizing that we are doing it at all. Procrastination is an acquired skill. Yes, I just said that, and I'll say it again... procrastination is an acquired skill. We learn to procrastinate, and we practice procrastination. Why? Because we like the results. I know that's really weird and somewhat counter-intuitive, but it's true. We delay the start of hard things because they scare us, they are difficult, they are uncomfortable, they are unpleasant... even if the end result could be fantastic. Thus, we tend to work the muscle of failure because we like the result, and it gets worked and grows stronger each time we work it.

Years ago I remember reading Merlin talking about why he's so intent on focusing on ways to improve and increase the ability to do creative work, and when asked if he did all this because he was particularly good at it, he said no, he did all this because he was profoundly bad at it. I likewise have seen that I agree with this sentiment (for myself, I really can't speak for Merlin ;) ). It's easy to get on  a roll and rock something when there is next to no effort. It's a lot harder to get in the groove when you don't know what you are doing, when you frequently fail, and you seem to take a long time to get out of the fail state.

In software development, I'm working through a book that talks about Behavior Driven Development with the philosophy to fail first, then pass, then refactor. This advice goes beyond just software development and software testing, but can be applied to any goal. The trick is to get yourself used to failing first, and to make that an initial goal.  Get in, allow yourself to fail, find out why it's failing, then make it work, and then review and refine what you've worked on. Then go on to the next piece. Don't unclutter an entire office. Instead, start with a folder, or an envelope, something small enough to find out the problems, then solve those immediate problems, then refactor your system to take on the next folder or envelope. Do this enough times, et voila... uncluttered office. It may seem to take longer, but you actually get more done because you've sliced down the complexity to a manageable level, and when all of the time is applied cumulatively, you may have spent a lot less time accomplishing the goal. What's more, you were able to do it without the muscle of failure getting all the attention.

It's my belief that to succeed, we have to become intimate with failing, and we have to change our relationship with failure. Because we fear it, we give it too much undue attention. By actively embracing it, and making it an initial part of our reality, with the idea that the very next effort will be to fix the failure, we can work other muscles, and in the process develop symmetry. Fail first, fail often, but fail with a mind to fix the failure, and quickly.


Matthew said...

Nice post, man. Another way to look at it is to look at all of the corporations you've worked with that were unwilling to dare greatly: Instead of making new products, they cranked out release 3.54, adding three new features from the competition, or maybe doing "funded" work for peanuts.

The great irony of the "low risk" approach is that by constantly avoiding risk, you put your self at risk; at least, risk of obsolescence.

As easy as it is to criticize corporations to not taking on risks, I might add, the people at those companies were doing the same thing -- getting a nice, stable, corporate gig with a steady pay check. Avoiding risk.

Right 'till the layoffs hit.

I'm not sure I could quite go all the way with you about embracing failure -- I play to *WIN* -- but certainly, I had some huge advantages in my personal and professional life by at least taking a risk, daring greatly, and knowing I might not win.

Anyway, again, thanks, good post. And yeah, Merlin Mann is the man. :-)

Michael Larsen said...

Hey Matt, thanks for the comment :). I'm not necessarily saying that you need to embrace failure, but to not let it get too much staying power, you have to be wiling to shrug it off quickly. Like you, I don't want to focus on failing as the main point, but I think the idea is to get over the idea of failing so you can get better at what you really want to do.

Let me give you an example from my own life... snowboarding. I love to ride, and I enjoy getting on the hill and ripping it up, but to get to that point, I had to deal with the fact I was going to beat myself senseless those first few hours. Playing to win got me through that, but understanding what was causing me to fail and look at it objectively was what ultimately got me past that point. Embracing failure != accepting or acquiescing to it. It means learning from it, and adjusting our plan of attack. In that way, we get more successes, and then we get out of being gun shy or anxious about trying to move forward.