Somewhere along the lines over the past couple of years, “failure” has become somewhat of a badge of honor. In the world of TED Talks, it makes for a good snippet when you hear people like Will Smith and John C. Maxwell say things like “Fail early, fail often, and fail forward.” This concept of “failure will make you better” is in a lot of discussion in the legal industry as well. Our friend and podcast guest, Cat Moon, has even created a whole theme around failure for her upcoming Summit on Law and Innovation conference where she’s created #failurecamp with the concept of failure being “the heart of innovation and entrepreneurship.”
So what makes failure such an attractive concept in innovation and entrepreneurship? The idea behind the “fail fast” movement is that it allows you to grow. It makes you curious as to why things didn’t work, and motivated to find different paths forward. It makes you better. All of these are true, but there is something even more transformative that happens when you fail, and that is that it creates a demarcation line in your life that pushes you past the person and identity that you were, and creates a new path and identity of the person you are now. It became clear to me while listening to a story about the massive failure that occurred at Jamestown, Virginia.
I know, that’s quite a jump from talking about the legal industry and then moving some 412 years into the past, but bear with me. In American history, we often discuss Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims, but if you step back, the real story of American expansion, including the ideas behind Manifest Destiny are more closely tied to the massive failure at Jamestown, and how that failure changed the way the British explorers no longer thought of themselves as simply explorers, but as colonists.
Now I need the readers to see this from a concept of failure and transformation, and briefly set aside the political, cultural, and historical issues that occurred. I liked this example because it gives a very graphic example of how failure can transform, but hopefully you can apply this to the modern issue of legal industry failure and transformation, sans the politics and other issues.
Around the 28:00 mark of the episode, host Avery Trufelman begins to wrap up the story and discuss what were the long lasting effects of Jamestown on America. Why look at the failure of these very unsympathetic characters of Jamestown? Trufelman explains:
What [the failure] produced is something that we are still living with. The failure was traumatizing and violent… and it provided the template for settlement in the US. It provided the very first hints that this colony would become something separate from England. Because in the light of such colossal devastation, these colonists simply could not relate to the lives they once had.
Failure changed them. Not just on the surface, but it changed how they identified themselves.
On a much smaller scale, that is what happens when we fail today. If we are determined, if we are motivated, and we are privileged enough that our failure doesn’t destroy us financially or professionally, then it changes us. It is the failure that changes us, not the recovery that may or may not come next. Failure changes the very core of who we once were.
We don’t see ourselves as the lawyer, or technologist, or knowledge worker, or whatever we previously were. We now see ourselves differently. It’s that post-failure moment that we see how far we have come, how different we are, and that we simply cannot go back to the way things were.