JK Rowling’s commencement speech

“I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination…I was set free, because my greatest fear [failure] had been realised…. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

JK Rowling, May 2008, Harvard University

-by far, the most eloquent language on this blog-

Fail fast.

This is a common phrase at start-ups.  The idea has been around for a while, but the jist is that it’s better to get some data and feed it back into your plan, rather than working out the plan in full before taking the first step.  At a company, that means getting the customer involved to define their needs before you have your product ready to sell them – they are more likely to buy the product if it actually does what they want.  In science (or at a company), that can mean making a hypothesis and testing it quickly, rather than spending time refining the hypothesis before taking data.  If the data disproves the hypothesis quickly, you’re better off since you can already move on to the second hypothesis.

But, there is always a balance.  The old adage ‘measure twice, cut once’ reminds us of the value of planning ahead before diving into an idea.  And, if you dove into your idea above too quickly, you’re often left with a pile of uninterpretable data and the necessity of repeating the experiment (but hopefully you failed so fast that the experiment can be repeated in less time than it would’ve taken to plan it perfectly anyway!).

My natural tendency is to fail fast.  I’ll even measure once and cut twice – I know someone will read that and shudder.  The good news is that after 22 years of school and even more years of life, I’m well-practiced at learning from mistakes.  I constant looking out for ways that something can be done more efficiently or just faster.  (And the corollary is that I suspect my own judgement on my initial pass is pretty harsh after the fact.)

So, if you’re reading about my home improvement experiences, you’ll find a lot of tips from me on the mistakes which I made and how you can avoid them (and how I recover from them).  My first-time projects at home often don’t go according to plan because I’ve learned along the way and can improve the plan – or I’ve just learn along the way that the plan was bad and I need to stop and regroup.  Our kitchen was unique since I’m pleased with most of the major decisions, but even then my hindsight was clearer than my plan…I did not consider that it’s tough to open a pull out garbage that has a knob (not a handle) with your pinky finger if you happen to be in the midst of onion chopping.  Our bathroom countertop is one great example of a fast failure turning into a nice final result. I’ll likely be one of the few bloggers who can tell you that you can erase tiling mistakes with a rubber mallet and a small chisel.  And I appreciate most store’s return policies since I almost never like the first incarnation of any of my decorating plans.

Here’s to hoping that fast failures can help us all move toward high quality results more quickly and efficiently.  My mistakes are most valuable if even one person out there on the internet can skip directly to plan B because I’ve demonstrated that plan A is insufficient.

Risk: friend or foe?

The most engrossing books/tv/movies have characters that take risks.  From Harry Potter to the Gilmore Girls to Mission Impossible to Atlas Shrugged to Laurel and Hardy to almost any biography (and beyond), characters don’t play it safe when they have choices*.  Their risk analyses are rarely intelligent, they aren’t always well-thought out, they don’t always end well and the situations are often happenstance. It is the uncertainty and consequences of these risks that make their stories so enticing.

We spend our free time engrossed in the stories of people who take risks and make bad decisions, often idolizing their off-kilter lives.  But, at our day jobs, we are taught to perform risk analyses and mitigate risk, to calculate the answer before actually acting.  This is the generally-accepted, most efficient way to do anything, and without it, investors won’t fund companies and, it seems, we won’t have products to sell.  We won’t sell Starbucks cappuccinos if they aren’t made according to the plan and rocket ships won’t launch without careful measurement.  Reading a story about someone who can’t hold a steady relationship or job is entertaining, but in our real lives, not being able to hold onto partners or build a career is a ‘flaw’.  Even the very origin of the word ‘risk’ is negative: mid 17th cent.: from French risque (noun), risquer (verb), from Italian risco ‘danger’ andrischiare ‘run into danger.’ (thanks, Google).

There is an apparent disconnect between our romanticism and fascination with the extraordinary and everyday life when we are told that we must minimize the risk.  Our fascination seems independent of the characters’ ability to weigh their options reasonably and forge the outcomes they desire.  Do we admire those who are willing to take risks because they are few and far between?  Or is it our nature to take risks but we choose not to because we evaluate situations and keep the odds of failure low?

Interestingly, it seems that Peter Drucker says, alternatively, that the origin of the word risk in arabic means “eating one’s daily bread” and are required in life and business.  He is also a proponent of logically facing risks.  It’s cliche that the greater the risk, the greater the opportunity for success.  Is the converse always true: the lower the risk, the less meaningful the success?  Low risk, high reward situations are as elusive as El Dorado.  It is key to avoid the particularly-dangerous high risk, low reward situations, I question whether there is ever a time to choose low risk, low reward over high risk, high reward.

I believe we don’t want to truly mitigate the risks we take on, but rather logically evaluate risky options, then focus our risk acceptance on the highest reward outcome (letting the low reward situations lay by the wayside).  After writing this, I found out that Mr. Drucker seems to support this  – and Mr. Drucker definitely knows what he’s talking about.

Perhaps an inability to set a goal could be re-phrased: I set up to take risks only when the outcome is great enough to be worth the investment – and often my recognition of ‘great enough’ may be too harsh, too slow, too on-the-spot or just plain old ineffective.  But, without intentional risks I don’t push myself to grow, and I’m a terribly boring movie character.

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*One exception to this rule is the books where the characters cannot bring themselves to take risks and the author points out the devastation of playing it safe (ie, RevolutionaryRoad).

The Scarlett method

I found myself assembling a shelf of ‘old friends’ when I recently unpacked our book collection onto our new shelves**.

On my shelf of old friends, I found myself placing the books that I can’t put down when I read them, and I can read them over and over again.  I don’t only read these books, but  they are there if I need motivating, relaxing or just entertainment.  One of these books is, I am almost afraid to admit, Gone with the Wind.  Yes, yes, it’s intriguing and exciting and tragic and a top ten love story of all time, but really…I’m married so who needs Rhett Butler ;)?  This book is about “people who have gumption and people who do not,” in the words of Margaret Mitchell herself.  Scarlett O’Hara may not be kind or selfless, but she definitely has gumption (and good looks).  Before we go too far, I acknowledge that we may not approve of her methods or even her goals as the book goes on – but this post is about attaining goals, not making them, so the reader is fully responsible for any sketchy goal setting!

Throughout the book it is clear that Scarlett is undeniably going to finish what she plans to do.  She is able to effectively set goals and follow through.  Despite this, when she is about to undertake another act of self-preservation, she feels guilt that lingers from her antebellum Southern upbringing.  When she realizes she has no alternative that still allows for survival in her war-torn world, she exclaims, “Oh, I’ll think of that later!” to put her guilt aside until she has attained her goal. 

Now, bear with me, the next book I have chosen to read is Espresso Lessons by Arno Ilgner (that was on the ‘outdoor adventure’ shelf).  Arno Ilgner is the founder of the Warrior’s Way, a method to improve the psychology of rock climbers to enable them (us?) to evaluate and tackle challenges effectively.  The reason I have this particular book is because I took a Warrior’s Way clinic last year.  While the class occurred at our local Planet Granite and focused on rocks, the underlying principle is equally and heavily applicable outside of the rock gym: the most effective actions, thoughts or plans are those on which we have consciously and actively focused our full attention.  Attention is the key word.  If you are climbing, climb.  If you are resting, only rest.  This is the time to plan.  Once you start moving again, just keep moving how your body flows without letting your thought distract you.  In other words, if you have fear of falling, think of it later and focus on falling itself now.

I can’t seem to get over how striking it is that these books, a century apart and worlds different in context, lead to the same place.  In Scarlett’s case, her goals are survival-based and distraction is her guilt.  In the Warrior’s Way, the goals are self-improvement/achievement and the distraction is fear.  In my case, I’m still not sure on the goal and perhaps the distraction is the internet…  To attain the goal, invest fully in moving toward it or invest completely in devising the plan.  If the movement doesn’t match the plan completely, it’s ok – just get to a stopping point to reassess honestly.  And perhaps, when we’re not sure where to put our inevitable fear or guilt or anger or other distraction and we aren’t able to put it in the past, the indefinite future is just as good. 

**A note on the bookshelves: since one of our old Ikea shelves literally collapsed under the weight of our library,

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we decided to upgrade by buying 3 of the Klassik bookshelf from Scandinavian Designs.  I guess they are actually discontinuing this bookshelf, which is a bummer since it’s not terribly expensive and it’s much more structurally sound than the Ikea bookshelf since the shelves are supported by a bar rather than little tabs.  I guess these Scandinavians like to read more than the Scandinavians who work at Ikea…