Image cc on Flickr via StrudelMonkey
Last Spring I went to the Montbeerlier festival at the Three Penny Taproom with my girlfriend Heidi, my colleague Sarah and some other friends. The festival consisted of a medium sized tent thrown up in a parking lot behind the bar. There was music, free cheese samples, house made sausages, and 12 different “extra special” cask conditioned kegs of beer. By all accounts it was awesome. And apparently a lot of other people thought so too.
After a while it began to get fairly crowded (for Montpelier) and about halfway through the festival they remarked that they were running out of beer. Some people had already purchased tickets to get a beer and were getting upset that they would be out of luck. Fortunately the organizers announced that they would bring out a couple kegs from the bar. Moreover, people would be able to continue the party inside the bar and their tickets would be accepted there as well. A beer crisis was averted and overall it seemed to be an extremely successful event.
What does this have to do with libraries? More than once I have heard the concern at different institutions about too much success. “What if too many people come?” “What if we are overloaded with questions?” At our institution we recently added an IM widget to every course in Angel, our LMS. One of the concerns raised when deciding whether or not to put it in was, “what if we get too many questions?”
This type of question is a legitimate concern, but not one that we should spend much time on, especially at the start of a planning process. This question boils down to “what if we have too much success?” And I would answer “great!” If we spend too much time on this question while planning events or services, then we handicap ourselves. We’ll begin planning ways to limit our success. It’s an easy way to kill good ideas before they even have a chance to incubate.
If the Montbeerlier festival said, “hey, what if too many people come” they may have promoted the festival less, or limited the number of people that could take part. As it was, the festival was a huge success. There were a few problems along the way, but they were quickly adjusted for and everyone was happy.
In your initiatives, plan big. If there are some problems you can adjust along the way, and through some failure learn from your mistakes. But don’t worry about too much success. There’s no such thing.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Research is an exercise in failure. You try a search in Google, or the catalog, or a database and often you don’t find what you’re looking for right away. You then try something else and perhaps get a little closer. Each time you try a search though, you learn a little more. You find new useful keywords to try in your next search. You learn what doesn’t work or what kind of works.
The reason librarians are research experts is because they realize that research involves failure. It doesn’t scare them and they don’t easily lose heart. They often see it as a challenge. They fail, but fail quickly, trying different iterations and learning along the way. Their searches are like the process of evolution involving multiple failed mutations until something comes along that works and flourishes.
Failure is necessary to succeed. It’s what allows us to learn. We should take the same approach in our careers that we do with our research and see failure as a tool… a necessary means to an end. Failure means you’re trying. It’s nice and safe to perpetuate the status quo. You won’t fail doing that. But you also won’t grow, and the library will stagnate.
Do something. Anything! Even if your idea isn’t fully fleshed out, start trying it. Your failures will help you to flesh it out. We don’t start research knowing the answer. We create our answer from a mix of failure and success. We also don’t know exactly how we’re going to build the perfect library. But we can figure it out. Sure they’ll be some failure, but you won’t even notice if you’re focused on what that perfect library looks like and how to get there.
Failure is awesome. It often gets a bad rap, but I like to sing its praises whenever I can. There are at least three reasons I can see why failure is a good thing.
First, failure is funny. I know I have wasted my fair share of time over at the Fail Blog. It’s amusing to watch fellow humans try so hard at something only to see them stymied. For some reason it reminds me of Camus’ take on absurdity.
Second, failure made us what we are today. All life on earth is a testament to the generative power of failure. The reason life succeeds so totally on earth is because it is constantly failing. Genetic mutations, failed copies of DNA, are the basis for evolution. Life constantly fails to copy itself correctly. Often this results in an unsuccessful life form that dies out or cannot reproduce, but every once in a while a mutation may be for the better. These failed copies allow life to flourish and adapt to changing environments. Failure in this case is a success.
Third, failure is scary but it helps us to succeed. Everyone has failed publicly. Whether it is a botched solo in a choir concert or a bungled job interview, failure doesn’t feel too good. But after that failure you’re changed. After tanking on the interview you figure out where you went wrong, or maybe you realize you are not cut out for public singing. At least now you know. Failure makes us stronger and more knowledgeable for next time.
The fear of failure often causes us to miss opportunities or holds us back from (eventually) doing great things. Failure is inevitable (as evidenced by the hundreds of pages on the Fail Blog). It is part of the human condition. Since this is the case why not embrace failure? I am not saying to purposely fail, but don’t fear or get discouraged when you’re less than successful. Failure is healthy. It helps you evolve into a better person.
So go out there and fail, laugh about it, and don’t forget to take pictures and blog them.