“Back in 2011,” writes former Dun and Bradstreet Vice Chairman Jeff Stibel, “I had an idea.”
In the brain and/or mouth of the wrong person, the word idea can be a chilling thing indeed. For those in the climate-controlled and wealth-cushioned C suite, idea means something different than it does for the rest of us. It DOESN’T mean, “Good idea sneaking a quart of contraband Milk Duds into the Imax, Sean.” Instead, it means something like “the inspired problem-solving vision of an executive super being who is set momentarily free of the unjust limitations of history and/or the physical universe.” An idea, in the worlds of Silicon Valley, high finance, and corporate leadership in general, is like a wormhole through the guts of materiality from inspiration to progress and profit*.
In this case, the idea is to LEARN FROM FAILURE. Because, sometimes, gang, there are bumps in the road. There are oopsies that cause us to, say, squander centuries of energy policy, end marriages, or mildly hamper third-quarter earnings. But Stibel’s FAILURE WALL, thankfully, lets us redirect our mistakes (you only get one!) back onto the shining path of growth, progress, and growth.
He continues, “I knew it would turn out to either be a boom or a bust situation, but I honestly had no clue which scenario was more likely. Nonetheless, I plowed forward with optimism, comforted by the fact that I was 'walking the walk' and taking a risk” (bold face, underlining, italics, and yellow highlighting mine). I’d like to point out a few noteworthy features of Stibel’s prose** since this is, after all, the language of leadership and innovation in America’s transcendent class.
• “[B]oom or bust” is both a cliché and an intellectually constraining duality. Stibel doesn’t consider the possibility that THE FAILURE WALL is, perhaps, just a mildly helpful gimmick that could be workshopped into something, you know, even more effective than a figurative trophy case of shame that converts mistakes large and small into a mush of contrite workplace quasi-epiphanies.
• The word “situation” is the empty tic of a lazy public speaker or a B- first-year college essayist. In composition speak, “situation” is considered “deadwood”—that is, an empty/inefficient word that should be replaced with a more specific and meaningful one.
• “Scenario” is deadwood too. In the excerpt above, it means pretty much the same thing as “situation,” and was probably chosen, if I had to guess, for dictional variety, making it that rare and heretofore unnamed “double deadwood” or “redundant deadwood***.”
• “Plowed forward”: is it possible to plow backward? We may never know, but the phrase suggests something like “proceeding despite difficulty” or even “proceeding recklessly, in the face of better, or at least other, options.” For Stibel, though, it seems to mean “trying out a hacky idea with some people who are paid to listen to him and do what he says (i.e., employees).”
• “Optimism” is the (foolish, unjustified, evidence-free) belief that the future will turn out well. For most of us, optimism comes and goes, but for Stibel and people like him, optimism is a fanatical, dogmatic necessity, without which the world might vanish in a deflationary puff. Business grows! Progress progresses! Smart guys and their cool ideas get better and better as they churn toward the singularity of universal mega-mind! Even failure is an INVESTMENT in the future, and should, upon recognition, inspire us with optimism for growth, change, and more growth.
• “‘[W]alking the walk’” and “taking a risk” are both clichés but only the first is set inside quotation marks. Why the distinction?
o Perhaps Stibel wants to remind us that he did not invent this expression; the quotation marks let us know that someone else came up with it and he’s just borrowing it for a sec.
o Or maybe he is signaling that this is commonly used but especially charged and important speech that must, because of its rhetorical voltage, be insulated from all the less powerful speech that surrounds it.
o Or maybe he knows it’s a cliché and quotes it to signal that he’s being fetchingly casual here (that is, “I’m too busy for wordsmithing right now”). In this “scenario,” it would stand to reason that he does not know that “boom or bust,” “plowed forward,” and “taking a risk” are also clichés as he neglects to put them in quotes.
o Or maybe, like many people, he “uses” quotation “marks” kind of “haphazardly.”
If you believe language arts creeps like me, Stibel’s prose is full of not just bad writing but bad ideas since ideas are often subject to and defined by the medium in which they’re presented (see Objectivism). But I don’t think Stibel’s Kinko’s-ass prose has dampened his ability to communicate with his audience. Powerful, economical, or even original writing is no friend to what passes for good ideas in his milieux. For these people, writing and language are often inhibitory media****; that’s why they love the ear mics, tri-colonic lists, and big, careening gestures (like some kind of underwater, dream tai-chi) of TED Talks—all the visual mannerisms and illusions of physical communication distract audience and speaker alike from the emptiness of their WORDS. Besides, if you’re worrying about WRITING WELL, you are probably not devoting sufficient energy to discovering the next great innovative hack-insight (like, “Why don’t we turn water into a publicly traded commodity?” or “Why don’t we charge tuition for public schools?”).
Stibel goes on:
"The idea was to create a 'failure wall,' by taking a large white wall***** in the office break room and encouraging employees and partners to write down their biggest mistakes. . .for everyone else to read…I snuck into the office in the middle of the night****** and stenciled some inspirational quotes by famous people about failure onto the failure wall . . . . Then, I took a sharpie and wrote down a few of my own failures: Things like, 'Should have sold simpli.com to that little company in Silicon Valley (Google)' [WHOOPS!] and 'Should not have waited so long to have kids*******.' I left a handful of markers and a few simple instructions: (1) Describe a time when you failed, (2) write what you learned, (3) sign your name." (Italics etc. mine)
So, yeah, no fuckin thanks!
Although I do think it would be pretty funny to sneak into the room and write some charged confession (“Before I go home, I wait till everyone else leaves and then I lick all the computers…”) on behalf of an office rival or, even better, a good friend. This of course could expose you to revenge forgeries but only if your identity is discovered or inferred. At any rate, if presented with THE FAILURE WALL exercise at your place of employ, I think the best idea is to make a mockery of it, or even to claim that you have nothing to share “since you don’t make that many mistakes anyway.”
There is a darker side to all this too. Someone I know went to a workshop in which people were encouraged to write criticisms of their workplace and/or recall negative things that had happened to them at work. This is not the same thing as THE FAILURE WALL, but it is obviously in the ballpark and probably derives therefrom. The exercise did not go well. People hung up dirty laundry, recalled past traumas, and scrawled conflicted denunciations onto a perimeter of whiteboards, as instructed. And then, “Oh, look at the time!” the session was OVER and the workshop leader, thinking there was another session lined up for the next day (there wasn’t) mumbled some bromides and rode off into the sunset.
But, hijinks aside, THE FAILURE WALL is ultimately disturbing because it is, upon introduction, immediately haunted by unacknowledged and unspeakable truths and tragedies. Remembering that time you kept a helpful suggestion to yourself instead of sharing it with your team because of endemic timidity pales in comparison to piercing but honest disclosures like “taking this job,” “having that first drink,” “being born,” or whatever. Societal failures, too, cast volcanic shadows over the tame, half-bullshit Sharpied confessions of your suck-up coworkers. You can summon your own list of collective failures here; I don’t have the heart to recite them at the moment.
In place of the THE FAILURE WALL, I would suggest a couple hours of affordable, weekly therapy******** and/or meaningful work, but that’s not the kind of solution you can spitball in a WeWork conference room. The real self-help move is to walk away, though this too is mere fantasy. In its place, you can, if asked to dip your toe into the struggle session of contemporary knowledge work, 1) lie and 2) keep the truth hidden somewhere safe, where it won’t be perverted by the lackluster insanity of corporate “innovation.” In other words, you can keep it to yourself or go home and, provided you’re feeling up to it, share it with someone you love.