Framing Failure

by Will Rogers


The staff members of This American Life are often challenging themselves with little experiments (24 hours at a diner, 20 acts in 60 minutes, stories pitched by their parents), and I’ve noticed a theme that intrigues me: Sometimes when an experiment goes badly, the story still turns out sounding fantastic.


I often shy away from telling stories about when things go badly in my own life/work… I like to tuck these experiences away in a closet, waiting for the day when they’ll ripen into success stories. I’m sure that the staff of This American Life has plenty of stories in their own story closet, failures that they don’t share with their audience. But they also have this trick that I’ve really grown to appreciate, and it involves failing, then talking about what went badly and why -- and when this strategy is used well, worse becomes better.


Consider the time everyone on the staff was tested for their testosterone levels, to see how they all compared to each other. In the show’s introduction, Ira Glass describes it as an exercise that “most of us, at this point, would not recommend that you try at your workplace or with your friends.”


They realize early that there’s no way to win at this particular contest (“I can't really decide whether I want to have more [testosterone] or if I want to have less,” says producer Wendy Dorr), But rather than stopping it right there, they keep it going. “We marched toward the abyss,” says Ira.


They make their predictions, go through with the test, and it goes exactly like they had feared: the woman with the most testosterone says it made her “feel really bossy and aggressive,” and the man with the least testosterone seems similarly displeased with the results. He says, “If I can’t be the most manly in public radio, then where the hell can I be the most manly?”


It’s really awful to listen to, and you want to feel sorry for him… at the same time, it’s kind of delightful… It’s awfully delightful.


Part of this delight is a matter of rubbernecking: we’re riveted by peoples’ failures. There’s an entire internet genre devoted to the “fail” because we love watching people make mistakes, the bigger the better.


But there’s something special about someone who can announce their own failure to the world, and then openly talk about what went wrong. That final bit of analysis (sometimes it’s as simple as, “don’t do what I did, because it was terrible”) makes the failure into a crucial piece of something bigger and more meaningful. The analysis frames the failure.


For me, as a listener, it’s extremely empowering to watch someone who can speak about their own experiments-gone-badly. It lets me know that I can go out and fail too, and it will be ok. I don’t always have to wait until the story is a success story before I can share it with the world, and talk about what I’ve learned.


When you narrate your failures, you contain them. It requires tact and humility to admit to a failure, but when it’s done well, it can be an awful lot more graceful than trying to cover up a mistake.


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