A quick preface. This was a talk given at IgniteNYC 14, at which the theme of the night was “Fails, Facepalms, and Spinouts: Stories from the Other Side of Failure.” As I’m sure you know, we’re now full flush in a culture of “failure is cool.” You know, “fail faster” and the like. Once upon a time my colleague Caleb and I would joke about it, and one day he made the brilliant observation above. So I’ve thought of this talk as sort of like “what to do when failing fast just isn’t enough.”
Anyway, I’m going to get right to the lesson, because it’s important. Thing is that I’ve come to feel that when a lesson is important enough, it does it no justice to teach it quickly. Few things of lasting importance can be taught in a how-to. So I’m not going to teach this lesson. It’s better that I use this time to give you a couple starting points to build from: 1) how I came to learn it, and 2) the how & why it works. I’ll start with how I came to learn it.
See, this talk was going to start with a story in Kuwait, where I was a military intelligence analyst. I worked from this sophisticated intelligence war room. But outside of that it was all desert. And militaries have always been concerned with basic things like keeping soldiers hydrated, but if you can imagine in Kuwait, this was huge . So basically, on this particular camp there was the war room but everything else was just these big warehouses - and they were packed full of bottled water. And all day every day, all you heard was: “Drink water! Drink water! Stay hydrated!”
Suffice to say that thinking about water was a significant part of our day. The only other thing to do really was to go to Kuwait City, and like hang out at the mall. But this was 2002 - right before the war. Attacks on soldiers outside of the base were a dangerous reality. So imagine the one time my buddies and I go:
We park underground and we’ve got to take an elevator to go up. But halfway up the elevator shuts down! The lights black out. No one says anything, but we’re all thinking the same thing: game over, we’re dead.
Later in conversation we found that we were all thinking different variations of various grisly ends. For me it was: Possible Scenario #1: poisonous gas from the ceiling. Possible Scenario # 2: the doors open to an ambush and we get gunned down. Either way, clearly this was failure.
So there’s these endless moments of complete silence, but eventually someone does say something - and sure enough it’s: OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GOING TO DEHYDRATE!! Which of course was scary then - but loads of laughs now...I mean, it turns out we just pulled open the doors so that we could climb out and escape. And this left me with a fairly good metaphor for failure, right? Potentially bad scenario, but hey just find some way to escape.
And I had lots of stories like that. I mean, eventually I escaped from a potential lifetime of intelligence world bureaucracy in DC.….That landed me in advertising....but hey I escaped from that trap too. So I was going to tell all these stories, and write this talk about escape. But I got concerned that it’d basically just be me talking about myself, with no actual use to an audience.
See, personal stories are entertaining - and certainly they can be deeply moving. But I wanted to avoid being too much like a motivational poster (or the modern-day tumblr equivalent) - important in its way, and maybe even deeply moving. But not necessarily containing information that you can apply to your own life in a practical way. So as entertaining as they are, I didn’t have stories that were “escape” in that perfectly metaphorical way of talking about “failure” that you can apply to your own life. And I wanted to do more than just talk about myself. All of this concerned me.
I took some time thinking about it. And as I did, I ran into a talk by this guy known as the “Mad Scientist of Music.” He’s always tinkering with sounds and making his own zany instruments and so on.
And so he spends his time with all these silly and very unconventional music-like experiments. If you can imagine, people sometimes consider him a failure as a musician: is what he’s doing really “music”?
Well at some point in his life he stops trying to answer that question (“but is it really music ?”), and he becomes concerned with this one instead: is it interesting .
Which immediately reminds me of Clay Shirky. One time he’s talking about the Interactive Telecommunications Program he teaches at NYU. (ITP is this hybrid media lab, where people build fantastically silly things. Like this box of mud and sensors, for example.)
He says at their student demo shows, people always say “hey that’s great!” - and then inevitably they ask the question: “...but what does it do?” (Is it useful??)
But he says it’s something the staff never asks of the students - only this. (Is it interesting?) He says that when it comes to doing important work, interestingness you simply cannot fake.
So aha! I had this revelation that solved my earlier problem: instead of racking my head around “is it escape ?”, it became much more important to talk about making failure interesting . And this leaves us with a question: what makes things interesting? Well....intuitively we know that it’s “story,” right? But story is complicated, as you also know - so that important lesson I mentioned at the beginning, it’s the second starting point.
The next few slides cover a set of (seemingly unrelated) things around the complex notion of “story” - how & why interestingness works. I’ll call it the principles of “ontological reappropriation.” But I made this phrase up of course, so you can still call it storytelling. Either way it starts with positioning. What you see here is “trash,” but it’s positioned as “art.”
And If you can imagine, the guy Justin behind these is an “artist,” and he’s made a killing selling these as “art.” The reason this works has roots in that word I used, ontology. This is the study of how things are classified, and how classifications give things meaning.
See, artists like Justin and our friend Magritte here have long known that if you first get people to classify you as an artist, then it then doesn’t matter whether you call something a pipe or a painting, because people will give you money for it. They intuitively understand that classification and meaning are incredibly fluid.
This I learned in university - and not while studying advertising, by the way! Only by putting this varied set of five things all in one place. When you do this what you find is that with the right story you can embed meaning - and I mean philosophically, linguistically, psychologically valuable meaning - into anything! (Even failure.) In other words you can “reappropriate” meaning through story .
Now, this has the potential to sound a little shady. And unfortunately it provides barriers for some people - I think it is the reason some people never learn to tell interesting stories. To those people I will say this: you can call it lying or what you want, but it’s important to note something about the relationship between authority and story. See, there’s something that’s changed over the last decade or so that makes this kind of “lying” work, and it is this:
We live in an age of transparency. Only in transparent environments can lies or this kind of “story” be meaningful. This sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me - here’s a clue to what I mean: In transparent environments, the weight of authority is assigned by its audience, not its issuer. We’re going to have to turn back to our friends in the military to explain.
See, traditionally an organization issues a symbol of authority, like when the U.S. Army tells someone they are a “captain,” and that they have rank over soldiers.
Symbol is the key word though, because authority is actually just a made up thing, right? It only has weight when some entity provides it with substance . So in this case the soldier can refuse to recognize the authority of the captain, but the Department of Justice will convince him otherwise with jail time. (substance!)
Contrast that with something like titles on LinkedIn - where everyone kinda has to tell a story about their authority, right? So I can be like “Chief Culture Officer” or “Chief Innovation Officer” or whatever - but in an age of transparency, one way or another you’ll find out what it is that I really do. In other words, my title is a story - but I want to make my business your business, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be interested. (substance!) That part falls upon me, the person with “authority,” through the way I position my experiences. So that when you find out what I really do, you’re actually interested.
Which brings us back to this. It is upon all of us as storytellers to make people interested in our experiences. Again, exactly how to do that is a lesson I didn’t teach today - it’s too important to teach quickly. But I hope I’ve given you enough of the things around it that you can think about what this all means in your own life.
See, my challenge for you is this: To always use your experiences - failure or otherwise - as the pieces of things that make someone interested in what you do .
And that’s all I’ve got for you! I’m in the business of making things interesting, particularly for organizations trying to adapt to a crazy changing world - but I’ll let you find that out on your own since I’m pretty easy to find. Thanks for bearing with me and enjoy!