As someone who has frequently felt like a failure, I’d like to talk about the importance of Failure Mode: No system can truly be trusted if it has not yet failed. And the more times it has failed without dissolving, the more it can be trusted.
Common example: For better mental health, you decide to go to the gym for one hour, five days a week, every week. Six weeks in, you are perfect…
6 weeks is a long time. There is cause for optimism. But this is an unstable system. You have no idea what failure mode looks like.
Something goes wrong. You get sick, lose momentum. A week passes. Next week comes and your engine is stalling out. You wake up late. There’s a big project at work…
Six weeks later: “I feel terrible. Remember when I was taking care of my mental health by going to the gym?”
You can extrapolate this out for any length of time and it’s still true. You’ve exercised five days a week for 146 weeks, no exceptions. Your system is probably pretty good, BUT YOU CAN’T BE SURE, because you haven’t seen what happens yet when it fails.
You’d much rather be in a position where you’ve exercised 5 days a week for 118 of the previous 146 weeks and had two missed months and a whole bunch of weeks that got blown up by a variety of excellent failure modes.
THAT is a stable system that you can trust.
In some systems, failure means death or worse, so it isn’t an option.
My friend Dustin runs a nuclear reactor and he follows what we all hope is a good system when running that reactor. He has never had the reactor melt down on him (which is good).
When she crosses the street, I make sure my three-year-old daughter always holds my hand and we both look to see if any cars or trucks or buses are coming before we step out.
We haven’t yet been crushed by a motor vehicle. 🤜🪵
These systems that MUST NOT FAIL can never fully be trusted which is good because fear and caution are desirable features in matters of life and death.
But in most cases, not only is failure NOT a matter of life and death, it is the most important component of the system.
To be clear, I’m not talking about “learning from failure” or “there there little one, we all fail and that’s okay” (true as that is). I’m talking about failure mode as THE MOST IMPORTANT TEST of any system, because it is inevitable.
The post-failure message of “Go easy on yourself” misses the mark. Failure is in fact the only reassurance we can have that our system works.
“Two steps forward, one step back” isn’t a compromised reality we all just have to live with… It is, in fact, the only path to success.
How many systems do we set up for ourselves that don’t account for (or softly welcome) their failure modes? For me, it’s too many. I need to stop that shit.