Failure’s Just Another Word for Unsuccessful

I’ve been thinking a lot about Failure of late. Which is to say, I’ve been thinking of Failure. But I have also started to think about it.

Failure is a word that’s overloaded with baggage and I believe it needs to be rebranded.

True Failure can be described closest by borrowing from that wonderfully accurate definition of Insanity: doing the same activity over and over and expecting different results.

Did that design you came up with fail or is it just not optimal? I’m not wearing rose-coloured glasses, a tie-dyed shirt, and flashing a Peace sign when I say that. There’s plenty of famous examples and quotes about failure versus “just didn’t work.” But those aren’t really important if you don’t apply that view to your own work.

Stop punishing yourself for trying something that didn’t work. Stop punishing others as well. If Science never gives us anything (I mean really, what has Science done for you lately?) it gives us a guide.

Hypothesize. Experiment. Review. Adjust. Repeat as necessary.

Sure, this makes you say “Well, duh…” while you are reading this, but in practise I bet you, like me, aren’t so high and mighty. You say, “Well, dumbass… You fucked up again.”

Well stop it. Only punish yourself if your experiments lead you down the road to Insanity. There’s no need to punish if the attempt was unsuccessful. “Unsuccessful” doesn’t have the baggage that Failure carries.

Go be unsuccessful. Do it a lot. Learn from it. Create again. And pay no attention to the Fail Early Fail Often shirt to the right. :)


  1. I fail all the time. If we didn’t have failure, we wouldn’t have iteration. I like your point that failure is a negative word. People are afraid of it and there’s the risk of admitting “failure” leading to a poor review or losing a job – a big fear in this economy. Instead thinking of a solution as not being a good fit for the problem might be a clear way to say, hey let’s try another solution without saying, “ohh my idea was really bad”.

  2. Matthew Oliphant says:

    This isn’t a well-written post. Plus side is, it’s the web so I can iterate it. ;)

    I want to retrain my brain to get out of the habit of kicking myself when things don’t go perfectly. Removing “Fail” from my common, non-sardonic lexicon is a good place to start. For me.

  3. Lea says:

    Ah, the power of semantics. I think it’s perpetuated with ubiquitous use of FAIL at any mild trip-up on the web. Basically, associating anything that isn’t perfect as humiliating.

    I think the Scientific Method is a good way to start. It encourages to strive for answers, and regards everything simply as results or “findings.” It’s not good or bad; just “is.”

  4. jen says:

    I like the post — thinking out loud about something that’s kind of eating at you. You made sense to me, boiled down: don’t be afraid to try, failure is part of the process. As an artist & musician (and designer/developer), sometimes my failures show me the way.

  5. Jen,

    That is exactly what I was doing. Glad you noticed. :)

    Usually if I don’t finish a draft post within a few days I never go back to it. This time I thought I would just set it live and see. See if it prompted more thinking on my part and if it prompted thoughts in others.

  6. mara says:

    The “Respond Eloquently Below” is great! Sorry to post this under this blog entry but I found your site searching for HCI online master degrees. In your archived site you had a post called “HCI Masters Degree — Where Can We Do the Distance Thing? ” It seems like people are still looking for them. Is there an update on it?

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