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You are doing it wrong…and that’s ok – The most valuable lesson learned at SXSWi

It is ok to fail.

This was the one message I heard over and over during SXSW. We all understand the premise of this simple statement, yet acting as if failure is an acceptable outcome is incredibly difficult. Nobody likes to be wrong, or to fail. But it happens, and we need to accept that. We need to channel Al Franken’s daily affirmation, look in the mirror and say, “I have failed…and that’s…ok.”

Almost everyone I saw – from entrepreneurs, to data scientists, to film stars – talked about failure. They all have overcome some failure, and in the process of admitting it, have emerged stronger and smarter. Adam Savage of Mythbusters said, “Failure is the most important thing in science. We all need to be comfortable in talking about and encouraging failure. Only when you fail do you truly know your limits, and where you sweet spot actually lies.”

If you know me, or have worked with me, you hopefully will not say that I am a controlling person who defines success by always being right. I love winning as much as the next person, but I have a very relaxed attitude when it comes to failures, and look at it as an opportunity to do better.

However, when I look at my attitude toward my kids, I find that I am not as calm and accepting of mistakes.  It truly is crazy. I obsess over the minor details of a marker on the wall or a toy being thrown at someone else. Why?  I inherently take on responsibility for the mistake, because that is my child. But if I don’t allow them to make mistakes, I am keeping them from learning and growing. Sound familiar? The same applies to advertising.

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson had this to say about making mistakes:

“When your kid goes into the fridge and pulls out an egg, the first thing you say is don’t do that, it might break!   I say, no, let that one play out. Of course the egg is going to break on the floor! But your kid will learn something about brittleness, that something can be hard but not strong. And he’ll learn what’s inside an egg, and then you can say, whoa, that was almost a chicken! That’ll blow the mind of your kid. What does an egg cost you, 20 cents? I know you don’t want to waste food, but 20 cents, that’s a cheap price for an education.”

Kids are not always perfect, and neither are the campaigns that we create. But that’s ok—because failure is not a reflection of who we are as people; it’s an opportunity for growth. A lot of times we have a desire to only present the positive part of a campaign, but we are only setting ourselves up for long term failure by not sharing the entire picture. When our teams and clients get used to only hearing good news, they will naturally freak out if anything goes wrong.

Ultimately, we need to get to a place where can clearly show that idea X didn’t completely work because of parameter Y, and that next time we are going to approach it with this new idea Z.  We need to plan out experiments along the way and use analytics to help guide the process.

Yes, the ideas we execute cost way more than the price of an egg, and the outcomes are more difficult to clean up than a messy floor, but our ideas, our teams and our clients deserve to know what we learned from our mistakes. We need to let go and acknowledge that there will be failures…and that’s ok.

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