The Ethics of Failure 1: Failure to Repeat

9 May

I have an obsession with watching shows with Gordon Ramsay, the Scottish Chef.  I especially like the Kitchen Nightmare shows (both UK and US) where he tries to help failing restaurants.  Once in a while a chef or owner will try to call him out on his advice.  They want to know what he knows about failing.  Ramsay doesn’t mention it often, but he has failed and failed big.  He tried to open a fine dining restaurant in his hometown and it closed down.  He talks about it in the UK edition of the show when he tried to help a restaurant in a similar situation.  He tried to use his failure and the lessons he learned to help a younger chef make it where he failed.

I read this great ACRLog blog post about failing from Kimberly Miller.  She used the phrase ‘failing forward’.  She gave an example on how failing at getting an article published in a peer review journal taught her a lot about the process of peer review and how to do it better next time.

This is the key to my post this week: next time.  Yep: NEXT TIME!

My biggest frustration as a younger librarian is the phrase “we did that already”.  I have had countless colleagues tell me an idea is bad because they did it once before. They can even tell me their theories on why it failed.  The problem is, they never did anything about it.  They planned, they implemented, and they reflected.  What they failed to do was keep the cycle going.  They simply threw up their hands, accept the fail, and never truly learn from it.  When someone new comes up with the same or a similar idea and they simply shut down because they failed at it.  Rather than mentoring, sharing what they learned, and helping the next generation, they discourage.

How many fails happen in our field because we fail to repeat after reflection and changing based on that reflection?  I am sure it happens in plenty of other fields.  My fear is that it is our bread and butter.  The number of younger librarians who complain about this very issue always frustrates me.

This has happened to me countless times, but there is one that stands out in my mind.  It was simple: move from a paper calendar to an electronic calendar for scheduling instruction.  I admit, I am never surprised to see a paper calendar still being used in libraries.  People seem to hold on to paper calendars despite the technology changes that improve electronic one.  At the point of this situation, Google had not yet come out with their calendars and Outlook was a little tricky to use, but it allowed people to have a shared calendar.  The library had tried to move to an electronic calendar years before, but the technology had not been ready.  That had been the only reason they had failed to move forward: technology.  Rather than keeping up with scheduling technology, they just gave up.  I tried many things when I started working.  Each time the tech failed me, I reconsidered and waited for the next tool to come out.  Each time, my colleagues reminded me about their past failure and my many failures.  I just knew I would find the right tool eventually, I just had to keep looking for it.  Eventually the software caught up with what I needed and I stopped failing.  Yes, a few played a passive agressive game by refusing to use it, but by and large, the vast majority congratulated me on my success.

I am a little less inclined to be dismayed by the failure of others.  I often have a “challenge accepted” mantra when people tell me I can’t do something.  I believe I am not in the majority about this though.  We have to remember to not let failures, no matter how small, just float off into the universe.  We have to reflect, adjust and try again.  If we can’t do it immediately, we have to be ready to use our experiences to help someone who wants to try again in the future.  Ramsay didn’t let his failure stop him from opening other restaurants nor did he try to hurt a younger chef who tried the same thing.  There was a next time for him and what he learned from his failures helped him with each next time before him.

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