Friday 27th July 2012

by sophie

This past Wednesday, in the last of the amazing speaker hackNY guest lecture series, we had the lucky opportunity to listen to team of partners at Union Square Ventures, composed of many of the biggest names in venture capital on the East (and West) coast. As we progressed through the Q&A session, complemented by a spectular, shimmering view of the setting sun over the Manhattan skyline, someone brought up the inivetible (and important) concern of whether this new start-up acropolis of Manhattan would make it. That is, beyond the hype and the parties and the geek-chic hipster glasses, would this bloom-and-burst of web apps amount to any valueable ecosystem?

Someone answered, and I forget who, that it was exactly these little failures, these short-lived spurts, that lead to a strong and stable economy. He compared it to Chad Dickerson, CEO of Etsy (also an amazing speaker that we got the chance to listen to on Monday, and head of a company that I have had a huge crush on for years now)’s technical dogma of continuous deployment. At Etsy, engineers are required to continuously deploy– in other words, push out new code as quickly as possible– even if that code may not be perfected yet. The code is expected to be flawed and eyes and ears are kept alert to catch and patch up any holes. The argument, which at first appears counter-intuitive, is that this methodology actually leads to a more reliable product, especially for something on the scale of Etsy.

His words really struck a deep chord inside of me, I guess because the ideas of rapid development and taking risks are themes that come up again and again in the start-up world (as my roommate says, “Make shit break shit”), and sometimes I don’t know if it is a mantra that I’d live by. It sounds rather wasteful and reckless. I guess I’m still a bit shook up by the old mantra of “too big to fail”, but is “too small to fail” just as bad?

On the other hand, I can’t agree more with the importance of failure, on both a personal and professional level. Failure is essential to life, it is essential to business, and it is essential to being a human being. Lots of times, I hear about these 20-something year-old guys making it big in Silicon Valley, but I’m more interested in hearing about the innovations they make to float to the top once they’ve been kicked down.

You may be wondering what right this little Ivy-League girl from small-town Suburbia has to speak of failure, but for many years, it was a steady companion in my life. From the ages of 5 to 15 I dedicated a huge part of my life to rhythmic gymnastics, a Eastern European hybrid of ballet and circus acrobatics, at my peak training more than 20 hours a week. Because school came relatively easily to me, and I like challenges, I considered gymnastics my true career.

The thing was, I wasn’t a particularly good gymnast. I did fairly well when I was young (I think I placed 3rd in the state a long time ago), but I just wasn’t cut out for it beyond the junior level. I lacked the bitchiness, the guts, and the hand-eye coordination to succeed. Also, I wasn’t nearly thin enough or blonde enough, and I was really not Russian. Combine shaky nerves with one really verbal coach who was constantly calling us fat, stupid, ugly and so very American like it was the dirtiest word, and believe you me: when I say I failed, I failed spectacularly. Every competition, I screwed up in more creative ways than you can imagine, on moves I perfected during practice. 8 times out of 10 (I mean, I wasn’t that bad), I would make a fool of myself, my coach would give me a death stare, and then I’d go to the bathroom and slap on another sparkly half-nude leotard and feel like shit.

I understand that it wasn’t anywhere equivalent to going bankrupt or anything, but I did consider gymnastics my career and it was in many ways my professional life outside of school.

So, in short, a very long tangent to back up a very concise statement: failure does a person good. It makes them humble, sometimes it makes them cynical, but it always makes them a little (or a lot) wiser. I’m not encouraging you to all send your children to training camp now, because I think that self-esteem is important, but still, learn to fail and more importantly, learn to get over it. Never, ever, be too big to fail because, I guarantee, we are all quite small. Just like it can make a steady-state of economy, little failures build a steadier mind.

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