Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko: «Failure is the new winning»

Failure is the new winning

Hamilton Spectator
Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko


«A running joke in our family goes that growing up, we were supposed to be born knowing how to do things well. At the family's “haute couture” tailoring establishment, mom would throw something random at us, like embroidering an elaborate design on an African boubou and expect it to come out perfectly, beautiful stitches evenly distributed.

» “I can't” was not option. You learned, and quick about it. Sounds tough, but I believe mom's 'can-do' attitude, helped foster resiliency to cope with life's challenges and failures, keeping us trying and not giving up easily.

»Failure. Everybody is talking about how failure is not a bad thing, it's the new winning: discovery emerges from failing, innovation comes from failing, growth develops from making errors. In business, failure can be a stepping-stone toward fortune. In education, we're hearing how kids ought to be encouraged to explore and make mistakes.

»In fact it's got to the point that admitting to mistakes, especially as a public figure has been twisted into one cheeky way of letting yourself off the hook: “I'm sorry. I'm human.” (I like to make a distinction between making mistakes and wrongdoing. Mistakes are made unintentionally; they are errors of judgment. Wrongdoing is intentional — like cheating on your taxes or having an affair).

»At a Toronto conference last month, the keynote of a very successful British Columbia nonprofit shared his failure story, complete with the yearly “failure report.”

» “Canadians don't like to admit failure,” he commented in passing, he himself a born- and-raised American.

»Whether or not we take offence, it's worth looking at: what is the cost of focusing solely on good points? At all levels, be it personal, at work, in the community or in the country, by not examining when or where we fail, we give up opportunities to figure out how we can improve and be better. Hiding or ignoring our shortcomings, hoping they'll go unnoticed is self-deception. We end up stunting ourselves.

»In our high-speed world of constant change, that price is too high.

»We are still acting and thinking in a way that doesn't correspond to the reality of today — whether than means social justice, economy and work, environment, education. The two aren't jiving.

»School is still largely about getting the right answer, business carries on mostly seeking to make maximum profit (screw future generations) and being right is better than doing right.

»But now more than ever, with the global-size problems we face, remaining uncomfortable with failure is not an option; we need to practice “smart failure,” trying over and over again, striving for the changes that need to happen.

»For change to occur, we have to risk failure — which of course is at the heart of the matter. The feeling of shame that failure can bring and the desire to avoid shame at any cost keeps people from risking failure.

»However, we can't face failure without talking about shame, and we can't talk about shame without talking about vulnerability.

» “Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability,” writes Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston. “It's the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

»Furthermore, “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage, not weakness,” Brown says.

»Brown's message is that if we accept vulnerability into our lives, failure (which is inevitable at some point if you are breathing) won't look so bad when it occurs.

»Young children can teach us a lot about overcoming failure. Fear of embarrassment is not on their radar. A young child will keep at it, until they get to where they want to be, or learn the skill they are after. Creative people and innovators share this unbending focus.

»We need more people daring and risking failure in order to grow stronger, healthier people and communities.

»There are many signs of hope. For example, what's exciting is a growing openness about sharing work in progress as opposed to presenting the final, “perfect” product or concept at completion.

»At a recent McMaster University W Booth School of Engineering Practice 'Open Innovation Studio' session (at the Hamilton Public Library), I was in a room full of student engineers who are working on solutions to real world problems. This session was for the public and community partners to hear reports on the students' innovation challenges.

»I was impressed by how receptive the presenters were to the audience’s probing questions, their willingness to engage beyond university walls and their honesty in exposing their challenges publicly.

»Experiences like this are heartening — proving that it’s happening, we are becoming comfortable with exposing uncertainty and valuing the learning in failing.»

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