It has unquestionably become de rigueur to speak of failing as if it is a goal to be achieved. “Fail early and often” has become a mantra coming from Silicon Valley, where it can be argued that I hail from. And I get it. Really I do.
Frankly, it has a message that librarians, who tend to not want to release a software product until they believe it is absolutely perfect, need to hear. The problem is that we tend to spend months of development time before failing when failure could have been achieved much sooner so you could move on to success. So yeah, I get it.
But this post isn’t about that. It’s about just how difficult it can be to give up. And perhaps more specifically, at just which point one decides to throw in the towel. Because I’ve been there. Multiple times. And I still don’t know exactly in which circumstances you bring the axe down. This is because of at least these issues, some of them deep-seated human traits:
- We really, really, hate to fail. This just isn’t a personal preference, we’ve had it drummed into us from childhood. Dare I begin to list the litany of sports sayings about this? No, of course not. It can be boiled down to this chestnut from Vince Lombardi: “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” Quitters never win. Is that the kind of message you want someone to grow up with if you want them to fail early and often?
- It is really, really difficult to make the call to pull the plug. I recall a specific project where I should have pulled the plug but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was way too invested in it to have that clarity of vision. I believed. I had written the justification for it, I had fought for it, I had lived it. How could I say I had been wrong? Especially since I wasn’t, at the beginning. But I had become wrong over time.
- How do you really know that you won’t succeed if you give it just X more time/money/effort? How? Adding to the problem identified above is the sincere belief that you will just need a little more of something in order to achieve success. This is not just an idle dream. One project I managed that failed really only needed X more of whatever to be real. But the real problem was that time had marched on, and the solution that I had fought so hard to make real was no longer the solution that we needed. Only in hindsight, and with time, did that become clear. But the enchanting prospect of success with only just a little more resources will remain.
- Not everything can be successful in rapid prototyping and short timeframes. The “fail early and often” proselytizers will have you believe that you should know immediately (or very quickly) whether something will work or not. But the problem is that this is not a universal truth. History proves this. Sometimes the environment, people, or society need to catch up to you. Had Sir Tim Berners-Lee given up on the World Wide Web after a couple years of lukewarm reception, we wouldn’t be where we are today. There are other examples I could name, or you could. The point is that speed is not always what leads to success. Sometimes staying power is.