A Leadership Mantra For Modern Times: “I Failed!”

“The trick is to get back on the horse (or motorcycle) and try again. And again, and again.” Photo by Abigail KeenanCourtesy of Unsplash

Somewhere around third or fourth session of the beginner’s improv class I teach at The Unified Scene Theater, a brick-and-mortar improv space located in the Bloomingdale Neighborhood of Washington, DC, I make the entire class stand up, raise their hands, and yell, as loud as they can “I FAILED! I FAILED AT IMPROV! I FAILED AT MAKING CRAP UP! HOORAY!”

Because, I tell them, they will. Failure is built into this medium. Not everything is perfect the first time out. Even seasoned veterans have bad shows. The now syndicated show “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” airs for 22 minutes. But how long did it take to record the shows for the producer and directors to cherry-pick those segments? Hours. Why? Because not everything works. People who have shared the stage for decades sometimes have miscues, moments that don’t always result in brilliance and magic. It’s the nature of the beast. The trick is to get back on the horse and try again. And again, and again.

Then I find out who the baseball fans are in the room, and ask if any of them know who the last person to hit .400 for a season was? The answer is of course Ted Williams. I’m no good at math (M.A., English Literature), but I’m almost certain what that means is that out of every ten at bats, Ted Williams managed to hit safely only four of them. The other six times he failed in his endeavor to get on base. But he’d step up to the plate and try again. And again. And the result was that amazing season. If Williams had stopped playing baseball after that miracle season, he’d be in the Baseball Hall of Fame for that feat alone.

Despite our efforts to know the future and how we should respond to it, we are in essence flying blind

Stop Predicting, Start Experimenting

Let’s shift gears for a moment with a quick quiz: What do the following have in common?

  • Those Andy Samberg “The Lonely Island” digital shorts featured on “Saturday Night Live”
  • A young woman’s decision to spend a year cooking every single recipe in Julia Child’s “The Art of French Cooking” and blog about the results, a blog that became a book, and then later a movie starring Meryl Streep (“Julie and Julia”)
  • The annual music/art/culture festival held in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, known as Burning Man
  • “The Real World,” now in its 21st season
  • Morgan Spurlock’s decision to spend a month eating every meal at McDonald’s, which later resulted in the book and movie “Super-Size Me”
  • “Web 2.0′
  • Fantasy Football

The answer is that all of these phenomena originated as humble, low-level, low-overhead, low-entry, low-maintenance, unambitious experiments. Experiments with no guarantee of success, experiments that could have just as easily failed. Experiments that began by asking the question “what if,” but resulted in large-scale cultural reception and reverberation. It’s a phenomenon Grant McCracken describes as “Culturematics,” the title of his most recent book* of the same name.

In improv scenes, in work, and in life: never stop trying.
The Next Big Idea … Isn’t

What is a Culturematic, and how do you identify one? “A Culturematic,” McCracken says, “is a little machine for making culture. It is designed to do three things: test the world, discover meaning, and unleash value.”

Why are Culturematics important? The problem, as McCracken sees it, is that our various corporate, entrepreneurial and artistic institutions have an “all-or-nothing” approach when it comes finding the next “edge,” a “one-thing-and-take-it-or-leave-it” mentality when it comes the next big idea, service, product, or campaign. And, more importantly, they want these big ideas to be foolproof, to come accompanied with guarantee of success—and as well they should, since these organizations spend a lot of time and money vetting them to ensure success.

And yet, McCracken says, despite our efforts to know the future and how we should respond to it, we are in essence flying blind. Our world is now so culturally un-centered and inscrutable, with so much of the technology and the media channels they house vying for attention, that locating a central “culture” from which we can accurately predict “the next big thing” is nearly impossible.

The Courage to Lead Begins with a Choice

Improv scenes work the same way: operating from a center informed by training, experience, and talent, we step forward and make a choice to begin, hoping for successful scenes. But there’s no guarantee they will be. There never is.

But that doesn’t stop all of us—improvisors, artists, entrepreneurs, organizations and businesses—from operating in a winner-take-all mentality when it comes to the next big thing. We think in campaigns, grand gestures, large, wholesale efforts for products or services or works of art. And yet too often that isn’t the way we operate at all: ironically, we often arrive at these “big ideas” by throwing a lot of micro-Culturematics at brainstorming sessions or when we’re trying to solve a challenge, just to see what fits. The result is that we’ll ignore or even throw away a lot of good “small ideas” because they don’t seem to fit. In our efforts to build mansions, we tear down a lot of them because we don’t have enough furniture to fill the rooms.

To echo the “Culturematic” model: What if we kept the furniture? And what if mansions resulted from it? The world isn’t behaving like those legacy cultural institutions, organizations and companies (nor the cottage industries bent on predicting how it will be behave) want it to.

McCracken’s answer is for those industries and institutions to instead behave like the world: “Don’t look for big ideas. Seek small ideas that can grow.” And if and when these small ideas fail, “fail fast. Fail often.”

In improv scenes, in work, and in life: never stop trying.

*Culturematic: How Reality TV, John Cheever, a Pie Lab, Julia Child, Fantasy Football . . . Will Help You Create and Execute Breakthrough Ideas, Grant McCracken, Harvard Business Review Press (2012)

Shawn Westfall is Artistic Director, The Unified Scene Theater, Washington, DC and will be a featured speaker at Thinking Good’s Toolkit Conference.

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