It’s #FailureFriday! We’re dedicating the end of the week to changing our perspective on failure.

A few years ago, Slate posted an interview with Ira Glass (of NPR’s This American Life) about being wrong. The article has been making its rounds on the internet again and we thought so much of it applied to #FailureFriday.

Ira was terrible at his job for a long time before becoming really good at it.

Interviewer: In the past, you’ve told a story about one of your producers listening to a piece you did early on, and afterward saying to you, “There’s nothing in here that indicates that you were ever going to get it.”

Ira Glass: Everybody has a drama, a struggle that they went through, and for me it was turning myself from somebody who wasn’t any good at this thing into somebody who’s really, really good at it. I was a great intuitive story editor from the start, but writing, interviewing, performing on the radio — I was just terrible at all of that.

All through my 20s, my parents were like, “Why are you doing this?” I wasn’t making any money, and I was so bad at it. I was 19 when I started at NPR and I was 27 or 28 before I could competently put together a story that I had written. All that time, I just stubbornly pushed toward this thing because I thought it would work out in some form. I was right about that, but I was wrong about pretty much everything along the way.

Getting things wrong is a crucial step to getting things right.

Ira Glass: I feel like being wrong is really important to doing decent work. To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it’s usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It’s not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can’t tell if it’s going to be good until you’re really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you.

Interviewer: Have you gotten faster at recognizing what’s not going to work?

Well, I register the danger that it might not work. But honestly sometimes you have to just do it. There are definitely interviews that we all go into knowing, ” Ehhhhh , here’s all the things that can go wrong and here’s the one or two things that it can go right.” And you just gotta do it.

I had this experience a couple of years ago where I got to sit in on the editorial meeting at the Onion. Every Monday they have to come up with like 17 or 18 headlines, and to do that, they generate 600 headlines per week. I feel like that’s why it’s good: because they are willing to be wrong 583 times to be right 17.

That’s amazing. I’m trying to work out the fraction in my head — like, how wrong do you have to be to finally be right?

It kind of gives you hope. If you do creative work, there’s a sense that inspiration is this fairy dust that gets dropped on you, when in fact you can just manufacture inspiration through sheer brute force. You can simply produce enough material that the thing will arrive that seems inspired.


Our takeaways:

- Everything great suffers from failure at some point in the journey. Failure is always an ingredient in a successful outcome.

- Even the best (Ira, This American Life, The Onion), plan for failure and struggle through because they have such strong faith that “something will turn out great and really surprise you.”

- While Ira references ‘creative work’ a lot, what he’s saying can really be applied to any career choice. Nothing just falls in your lap. In all industries, in all career paths, you’ve got apply “sheer brute force” and be consistent enough so that when you arrive it seems ‘made for you.’

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