Too often we get hung up on THE NEXT GREAT IDEA that will save or transform the Jewish community. Following stark headlines birthed by the recent Pew study, I suspect the urgency around this may even grow. Yawn.
I'm more interested in looking at the world and our
challenges opportunities through new lenses. Sometimes a tweak here and there is a great approach for improving your work. Sometimes we need to think bigger. But as the scale of the idea (and the investment required to make it come to life) increases, the risk of possible failure increases as well. Our fear of failure therefore often acts as the glass ceiling of our biggest ideas and freshest thinking.
Those making really profound progress in our rapidly evolving world aren't afraid of failure. As detailed in The Lean StartUp, it's not always about the A landslide victory of your idea, it's about developing it in a smart and nimble way. It's about seeing the small failures and improving upon them. Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy started by making videos for his family, and realizing the value, scale the idea to help others. Rarely are great, big ideas great or big right out of the box.
At The Nonprofit Technology Conference a year ago, Beth Kanter led a panel discussion called "Placing Little Bets" (based on the book, Little Bets), where the discussion turned to failure. Fascinating. Of course your little bets (experiments) can't grow into big discoveries unless you fail. Like in a science lab, you learn as much (maybe more) by the experiments that don't turn out as you hypothesized. My take away: the tech/innovation field understands this, and encourages, rewards, and invests in this cycle. They think big (but start small), know how to let go of the mediocre ideas, and how to identify failure, learn from it, and improve upon it.
In the Jewish community, I am afraid we're too afraid to fail. In fact, we're so afraid of our own failure (writ large — declining numbers, declining engagement, struggling institutions) that we embody that fear of failure in everything we do. Sure, there are people placing bets, people with fresh ideas, and a whole 'innovation' sector. But I'm speaking to the collective ethos of organized Jewish life. We need to think (and feel) differently about failure.
The Jewish Education Project, in partnership with Upstart and UJA Federation of New York, is hosting a FAIL FORWARD CONFERENCE in November, with Ashley Good, the CEO of Fail Forward. I'm thrilled to see this issue rising to the surface of our communal conversation. We need to be talking about this, sharing our 'failures', collaborating to decide where and how to invest in the places where we can improve on that failure, and how we can learn from it.
But here's what I think it really boils down to: We have many connotations with the word FAILURE that we need to let go of. Or maybe we need to fine an alternate word (suggestions welcome in the comments).
- For Jews, failure signifies the END of something. That's a concept all too real, and very traumatizing to leaders of the Jewish community. So let's get this straight: Failing forward isn't about extinction of an idea (or a whole people). It's about refining and strengthening that idea so it will flourish.
- Failure often carries connotations of blame — of negligence, or stupidity, or defeat. And of course we (personally or organizationally) don't want to be associated with that. We need to write over those connotations with positive associations. What will those be?
How do you think about failure? How do you talk about it in your work (or why do you struggle to talk about it)? Do you or your organization have practices that help embrace, celebrate and learn from 'failure'? Where have you failed and learn from it? What new associations can we add to the word "failure" to help us embrace failing forward for all of its goodness and potential benefit to our community?
I'm giving away two great books from people who have looked at this idea, or challenged it in profound ways. Share your experience of and ideas about failure and enter to win with The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner, or The One World Schoolhouse by Salman Khan. (Make sure to note which book you prefer, and follow the comments so you'll know if you won.)