When I was growing up failure was not an option. It’s not that my parents told me that. It was just a general mindset in the world. People didn’t think that mistakes were something that promoted growth and learning. Trying something and not succeeding just wasn’t done. If someone or something failed it wasn’t talked about, or if it was, it was discussed in hushed tones as if something truly terrible had happened.
Today we are fortunate to live in a world in which mistakes and even failure are OK options. Failure is even looked at as a way to learn and to be able to take an idea or initiative and make it even better. This is a great opportunity for librarians working with teens. We want to accept that failure is OK and be willing to try something new with and for teens even if not sure that it will be 100% successful.
Why is this good?
Why is an acceptance of failure and mistakes something good? Consider when you get a new idea and are really excited about it. If you focus on making that idea perfect and not launching it until you are certain it will go off without a hitch, what happens? You might never get it to that perfect place. Or, it might take so long that by the time you are ready to launch it the idea might not be useful or of interest to teens anymore. But, if you are willing to try things out when in the formation and planning stages, with an acceptance that it might not work right away, then you can actually test out your ideas, get feedback from others, and get them into the community before they fade away, you get bored with them, or are simply out-of date.
This also means that you have to be willing to evaluate all of the work that you do and truly look at what worked and didn’t work with an eye to making change. If you try out a new program or service that you launched before it was perfect, do all that you can to figure out what the positives and negatives of that program are and change things. Don’t simply say, “Oh well, it didn’t work, we’ll move on to the next thing.” Maybe the idea was a good one but it just needed some tweaking to make it more successful. Then, do that tweaking and try again.
Failure in innovation also means you have to listen to what others have to say. Don’t take critiques of a new idea personally. Be honest about what you are thinking about doing, ask for feedback, and if something doesn’t work just as you hoped ask for ideas on how it could have gone better or been more successful. Don’t be embarrassed by what didn’t work. Be proud that you tried something new and were willing to take a chance. Show off your pride by talking about your failures and asking for advice.
I know that it can be hard to admit failures and mistakes and that it might seem like if you do that then administration and colleagues will look at you as unsuccessful in your work. There is no doubt that there is a challenge in balancing acknowledgement of failure with promoting your successes in order to demonstrate how you are helping teens to succeed and grow-up successfully. That means make sure that when you do have a success, talk that up too. Let people know that you and the teens had a great program, or that you were asked to present at a conference, or that a teen came and told you how much of a difference the library made in his or her life. Your work isn’t going to be only about failure.
Transform error into insight
In a YALSAblog post in August 2011 Jennifer Larson and I wrote about Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From. One of the topics we discussed was failure and we wrote, “Error as key in innovation comes across loud and clear in Johnson’s book. He asks readers to consider that it’s possible to â€œtransform error into insightâ€ and that â€œinnovative environments thrive on useful mistakes.â€
I challenge you to do just that. Be innovative in your libraries with and for teens and transform your errors/failures into insight into how you can do an even better job serving adolescents. It might be scary at first, but in the long run I think you’ll find it’s freeing and exciting.
Creative Commons images by Flickr users Sean MacEntee and Search Engine People Blog.
I love the idea that “innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes”. But it is really hard to establish an environment that allows for this reflection because even before you make a mistake so many people (librarians included) are first resistant change and new ideas. In order to create an environment that allows us to discuss mistakes, we must first work hard on creating an environment that encourages and allows us to discuss new ideas. The recent discussion on twitter and blog-sphere about the man-cave article in SLJ certainly points out that we have a long way to go in our endeavor to create an environment that welcomes both out of the box ideas and failure. While most discussions were enlightening, the overall rhetoric and tone was discouraging. It takes guts to try something new and you have to be even braver to share that idea, especially when that idea failed.
Mairead, thank you for your very thoughtful comment. You hit on a really important point, how do we breed a culture of innovation and acceptability of failure within our institutions and our profession. I wrote that one can’t take feedback personally and I think the other side is true too, if someone tries a new idea and it’s not what you would do, then don’t take that personally. It’s OK to disagree and even in that disagreement it might be possible to say, “Hey, have you thought about turning that idea around a bit and trying it this way instead?”
We can’t be afraid to try new things and innovate and that means feeling safe within our institutions and profession and knowing that if we fail or make mistakes it will be OK with those we work with. To repeat myself, we need to breed that environment in libraries!