The good and bad of failing

Lately I’ve read a couple of articles on failing, which have echoed something I’ve felt for some time now. See, I’ve been preaching that failing is no disaster, that as long as we learn from our mistakes we shouldn’t be worried about not getting where we’re aiming to get.

What I’m a bit worried about though – and what I’ve seen echoed elsewhere – is the growing notion that it’s become a sort of a badge of honor to fail, that failure can be a goal in itself. ”No biggie, I must’ve learnt something from this right?

There have also been a number of people I’ve talked to that are a bit… well, not worried, but confused. They have failed in ventures, but the learning has evaded them for some reason. So, is there a method to failing? And does it always pay off?

One of the times I’ve felt I learnt the most from failing was back in the days when we were creating content for MHP – i.e. red button interactive TV shows. We were working on a version of ”The Space Trainees”, a language training game show for kids set in space, and had created a number of language training games for people to play at the same time as the people on the TV show were playing their versions of the game (this was back in 2005, so fairly early in the interactive phase).


What we quickly found out were things that have had an impact on a lot of later interactive work I’ve done; people liked to play along, but fell off the cart regarding the TV show. Conversely, people who were not playing along found those moments to be fairly boring parts of the show; as we couldn’t advance the plot in any major way or lose the players even more, the excitement level sank for the non-players.

What it in the end led to was a cross media show instead, merging play online with a TV show in an educational setting, two seasons in production in Finland and an iEmmy nomination in 2010. Now, the reason we quickly learned what we had to learn from the ”failure” we experienced was that we had a fair amount of research connected to the project. But even without that, we could clearly see – and feel, ourselves – that these certain moments didn’t work. But the decision to go cross media instead, that was down to our gut feeling, more or less.

I think that’s where ”failing forward” finds its proper space, in between scientifically finding out what doesn’t work and, leaning on experience and gut feeling (and knowledge), decide how to change things up.

Christian Fonnesbech has lately worked on Cloud Chamber and before that on 30-odd productions in the cross and transmedia vein. He also has experience of the art of failing. I asked him if he could give me ONE example where he’s failed and really learnt something, and how he did it:

” You ask if I have a single example of a project where I made mistakes and then learned from them. The problem is, after 35+ projects – that’s ALL I have. Projects, where I made mistakes and learned from them. That’s all anybody has.

To me, ”practice” and “learning from your mistakes” is pretty much everything. It’s like the architects say: “Getting to work is half the battle”.

Telling stories with technology involves a lot of different skillsets – and I’m sure that such things as talent, intelligence, social skill, musicality and technical aptitude do make a difference, but nothing counts like practice.

And if you’re innovating, then that goes double. Think about it. Innovation is like improvisation – you’re making it up as you go along. And who is the best at improvisation? Is it beginners, or is it veterans? Is a veteran trumpet soloist better than most at what he does, because he was born with it – or because he has played and played and played and played?

You have to work. You have to build experience with the opportunities, traps and pitfalls in the process. You have to learn how the different kinds of people involved in a project think. You have to be able to feel how the audience will react, even though the launch is months away. The only way to learn these things is to get out there and make stuff and see what fails.

Because you will fail. A lot. Oh boy, will you fail! Pretty much anything you do, for the first time, will fail (just ask anybody who’s ever tried to remodel a house).

The classic counter argument is of course Mozart. “He was making symphonies when he was 5 years old!” they say. But Mozart wasn’t actually any good when he was 5. None of the work from before his early teens is still in use today. So even Mozart, one of the single most talented individuals in the history of mankind, had to practice like crazy for almost 10 years, before he started to become great.

What are you doing here? Why aren’t you out practicing?”

Talking to Alison Norrington, of Storycentral and Chatsfield (etc etc) fame, we move in similar spheres:

”This is a huge lesson I learned during my MA in Creative Writing & New Media. The concept of failing as a positive thing is a tough one to swallow – especially in our era of over-sharing and transparency. Failing suggests a sense of ‘not being good enough’ or a huge misjudgement – and who wants to admit that!

I launched Staying Single, which was going to be my 4th novel, as my dissertation project for my MA in 2006. I thought I had strategy and a blurry idea of who my audience were and found that I was wrong. The biggest failure included asking the audience to lean forward and choose how a story arc concluded. Except I didn’t ask that question until around 60 days in.

I learned quickly that I hadn’t set up the intention that this call to action would happen. It had the effect of turning a camera around to the audience and putting them in the spotlight. They hated it and it was a ghost town! I hated that it didn’t work and was embarassed about it. But it was this ‘failure’ amongst others that I hadn’t set up properly with Staying Single, that spurred me on to the PhD. I learned that I needed to be more aware of my audience, to listen, to give clear calls to action, clear timelines and a sense of urgency and rewards.”

Lucas J.W. Johnson, from Silverstring Media, echoes that train of thought:

“I think most projects fail in some respect; not every single thing ever goes perfectly. You end up with a great product but can’t get an audience. Or you have interest but fail to capitalize well. Or what you thought would work great doesn’t take off. Even successes have things that could have been better. And you can learn from all of that for the next one.

One way I deal with that is that I go into pretty much every project with the mindset of it being something of an experiment: I want to see if this concept will work, and if it doesn’t, I can always learn from that for next time, examine why it didn’t, change some variables, try again. Every project, success or failure, is an opportunity to make the next one better.”

All in all, there seems to be an art to failing and building success on those moments of failure. How much that is down to skill, aptitude, sheer luck or something else, is probably open for debate. If you have any stories about failing leading to success, please do share below!

Simon Staffans is a content and format developer and media strategist, employed by MediaCity Finland. He works with multiplatform storytelling, transmedia development procedures and great stories. Contact him at simon.staffans(at) or follow him on @simon_staffans.

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