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Congratulations, you failed!

It’s just like riding a bike

When I was 14, I bailed from my Schwinn Predator BMX freestyle bike, slammed to the street, landed on my back and separated my right shoulder. To my mom’s dismay, the day I was cleared by my physical therapist I was back on my bike and after a couple more falls, finally landed the trick that put me in PT in the first place.

Those were how most of my summer days from 12–16 went. I spent them learning new freestyle BMX tricks. To learn a new trick in action sports, you try, fall, adjust, try again, fall again and repeat as many times as needed to master it. Once that’s done, the process starts over with a new trick. It will hurt the first couple or fifty times but falling, or failing, is baked into action sports. It’s how you progress. It’s how you learn. It’s expected and celebrated. If you’re afraid to fail, it’s not for you.

boy on a bmx bike
My sone on a 1987 Schwinn Predator but it could very well have been me

“Daddy, what’s failure?”

Fast forward a lot of years after that fall: my son came home from third grade and asked me if I knew what “fail” meant. I answered that people think it means you couldn’t do something, but I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. He looked proud and said, “It’s not, my teacher told me it means First Attempt In Learning.”

That’s brilliant.

This conversation happened three days before I was scheduled to speak at an AIGA Chicago event about a time I failed, how I recovered and how it affected me. I was having writer’s block because the way I define failure didn’t match the story they expected me to tell. The presentation I had written was going to look like performance art of me failing in real time.

But then I had an epiphany based on my BMX past.

There’s always a better way to fail

Our definition of failure sucks. It leads to regret, and regret roots us in the past. We’re supposed to learn from the past, not live in it. Together regret and fear lead to inaction, stagnation and boredom.

The reality is failure is part of the learning process. Failure requires action. It’s how we learn. It’s how we find bigger, better and bolder ideas. Failure is how we grow.

I named this way of looking at failure “Fail Good.” It’s grounded in the idea that nothing great can happen when you’re scared to fail. But amazing things can happen when you’re willing to fall flat on your face.

This new viewpoint became the new foundation for my AIGA talk, which I rewrote so late that I didn’t even have time to rehearse. I couldn’t bounce the idea off anyone. All I had was my gut instinct that it was the right thing to discuss because it scared and energized me.

“I did the assignment wrong,” were the first words I said to the audience before introducing my untested philosophy of “Fail Good” and challenging them to redefine failure.

I recounted my action sport past and how I often feel more comfortable in the uncomfortable. I often find myself in places where failure is the more likely option, but I do everything I can to succeed. In a way, the AIGA presentation went from what could have been real-time failure to a demonstration of Fail Good at work. But I was the only one who knew that.

The response was super positive, and that reaction changed the way I lead my teams. The concept was always part of my leadership style, but I kept it quiet. In no job interview do they want to hear you champion failure — trust me I’ve tried.

The Fail Good creed has led me to some amazing experiences, from making it to the final round for the first season of The Real World (true story) to taking photos for a number of national magazines and starting a career in advertising with no industry experience.

Letting your team fail brings success

Any good creative director should be a coach for their team, but I started to be more vocal to them about failure. I tell my team that not only am I their coach, but I’m also their protective gear, helmet and foam pit. I’ll give them a soft landing if they put themselves out there and wipe out.

This approach changed my teams’ attitudes and the way they work. By taking more risks, they became happier, which in turn made their work even better.

When someone says, “The client will never do this,” I answer, “They’ll never do it if we never show it.” And when asked, “What if the client hates it?” I reply, “What if they love it?”

The first sentences above are rooted in a fear of failure mindset. It’s why brands become stagnant and creative teams grow bored. If we’re afraid to fail, we’re afraid to progress and are okay with the status quo. No one in this industry should be okay with the status quo.

Fail Good is not about being stupid. It’s a calculated risk. You wouldn’t stand at the top of a 73-foot ramp and drop in when you’ve never dropped in any ramp before. It’s popping on a helmet, knee pads, and knowing how to fall before working your way to that ramp.

When I taught snowboarding, we’d spend the first half of the first lesson on how to fall correctly. It’s THE MOST IMPORTANT thing you learn in action sports. And I’d argue in our business too.

We love to talk about bold ideas, but then forget that to go bold, we need our teams and clients to feel safe when things don’t work out. That sense of safety, that Fail Good attitude helps us propose bolder ideas that scare us a little. We put them out there because those ideas are usually the ones that resonate most and can make real change. They’re the ideas that win.

As an industry we need to embrace the idea of Failing Good, and I love that Known feels the same way.

So… let’s do this. Let’s redefine failure. Let’s teach ourselves, our teams, our peers and clients to Fail Good.

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