Sunday, June 14, 2009

The path of success is paved with failure

Will Wright is, I think, one of the most important and visionary designers in the video game industry. Years ago, he basically invented the "Sim" genre with the creation of SimCity and, eventually, The Sims, two of the most popular franchises in history. Most recently, he's published "Spore," which, while not as successful as the others is, in some ways, equally important. Or will be, I think, when we go back and look at the history of games in another couple years.

The NYT has a nice interview with Will. Read the whole thing, as he's an interesting and well-spoken guy. The part that I enjoyed the most was where he discussed failure:

When I’m managing creative people, the way they relate to failure is very important. Because there are certain types of failure that you really want to celebrate. I personally learned a lot more from my failures than from my successes. And if you look at it that way, then all my failures, you know, in some sense brought me to my larger successes, because I recognized why I failed, and I learned from it. And so, at that point, you can even argue that it’s not a failure. It’s part of your learning process.

And so, even with interns, it’s kind of interesting to see how they relate to failure. Does it motivate them, do they go a different direction, do they give up or do they learn from it and get some insight and add it as part of their tool chest? In some sense it is an award that they’ve earned.

This parallels a very basic belief of mine that I try to model for myself, and encourage in any team I manage, and in my students. The way I put it, in short, is a simpe, zen-like statement:

The path of success is paved with failure.

Note: not the path "to" success. Success is a path, a journey, not a destination. And, in some senses, the definition of any path is what "paves" it. We talk about dirt roads, cobblestone streets, paved highways. What is a path except that which we utilize to differentiate it from the "stuff" on either side?

Which begs the question... if success is paved with failure, is it possible to fail and not move towards success? I would say, "Hell, yes." A path has a direction and purpose. The act of paving it defines it. So while a particular failure may look the same when reviewed as a stone on the path or a stone in the field nearby, it is differentiated by being placed, in context, with others.

This closely relates to the concept of "The Beginner's Mind," which states that a person who knows they know nothing, that they are a beginner, is going to learn much more than someone who thinks themselves an expert. It also describes a state of mind where one is comfortable being ignorant and making mistakes. Not because we don't care about doing well, but because we understand that to improve, it is necessary to recognize our current limitations. If you think you know something, you don't try to learn it. If you believe you've reached the end of the path, any stones you find will be litter for the roadside rather than building blocks for the future.

The line in Wright's interview that struck me the most was that failure becomes "an award that [interns] have earned." That's exactly right. Creative people need to be given opportunities to screw up without fear that the failure will be regarded as a loss. You will never go beyond where you are now, never experience glorious, new, surprising results if you expect the work of your creative team to succeed based on your current definitions.

Often times, in the teams I've managed, we create this situation by coming up with multiple design drafts for a particular project. Three seems to be the magic number. There's usually the "safe" design, which is what you'd do if you had to whip something out quickly that you know won't be vetoed by anyone. Then there's usually a more "high concept" version, and a more "down and dirty" version, both of which accomplish the goals, but with different and (usually) riskier design and/or copy elements. It's a good exercise.

The best creative folks I've worked with (and that includes my current situation) never resent the time taken to come up with the "alternative design drafts." It helps us think. It helps us grow. It gives our internal customers options, and it encourages everyone to think about the process of creativity as a process, not and endpoint.

Kudos to Will for bringing it up and supporting the idea.

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