KRISTY PASQUARIELLO is a Children’s Librarian at Wellesley (MA) Free Library. Contact Kristy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kristy is currently reading My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson.
When I first started working as a children’s librarian in a public library, I had grand plans for the successful programs I would run: charming storytime tea parties at the historic branch of our town’s library; after-school craft sessions based on a different fairy tale every week! I planned and I planned, I purchased supplies and painstakingly prepped materials for the elaborate crafts I envisioned. And then, on the afternoon of my very first special program, I stood expectantly at the entrance to the children’s room and waited. And waited. And waited. That’s right: no one came. Not a single soul ventured into the library that afternoon for my program. As a relatively new public librarian running my own programs, I felt pretty depressed about it. All of that work! All of those supplies! Was my idea bad? Maybe I picked the wrong field, I thought desperately.
Four years later, I have come a long way. I still cringe a little bit when I think about that program and the hours of effort I put into preparation. But I have realized that there are a lot of factors I didn’t consider, or even know to consider, when I held that program. For instance, school gets out at 3:15 p.m. My program started at three. Parking and traffic in that part of town after school lets out is a total nightmare! Even if families wanted to come later, the traffic would have deterred many of them from trying. But more importantly, my advertising was less than stellar. I listed the program in the monthly paper calendar but nowhere else—not online, not with a yer at the bustling main library, not even with a flyer at the branch where it was held.
My lack of expertise (and, ahem, common sense) at that time is somewhat embarrassing in retrospect. But that whole experience shaped my perspectives as I moved forward with my library career. Never again would I put so much time and effort and money into a program I had never done before and that no colleague had ever attempted either. I came to appreciate the value of failure as an unparalleled way to learn what doesn’t work.
Why Is Failure So Hard to Admit To?
Much has been written about the numerous benefits to be had from a failed experience at work. It’s widely thought of as a cliché in the business world to “embrace failure.” There are, to-date, eight TED Talks about learning from failure. Experts extol the virtues of analyzing mistakes in order to avoid repeating them. Many managers have procedures and policies in place that are designed to help their employees embrace failure in the name of positive change. And yet, denying failure and a reluctance to admit defeat are still the norm, from healthcare to politics, from giant corporations to small-town public libraries.
Why is this? Has the saturation of social media, with its multitude of voices all clamoring to craft a perfect narrative of their lives, impacted our ability to admit defeat? Or has admitting failure always been difficult in an ultra-competitive world where perceived weaknesses might dog our careers and reputations? Sometimes refusing to admit failure can even have tragic consequences. Harvard University professor Amy Edmondson, writing in the Harvard Business Review, describes one of the most well-known cases of this type of failure, that of the 2003 explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia that killed seven astronauts. NASA managers downplayed the significance of foam that had broken off the side of the shuttle during its launch. Rather than investigate further, as engineers suggested, they continued to overlook it, and ultimately missed the larger failure that led to the explosion.1 Similar stories abound of people going to great lengths to avoid admitting an error, only to inadvertently cause a bigger error. We’ve all had that manager who insists on keeping a policy in place that is clearly not working.
In their 2007 book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson discuss the idea of cognitive dissonance, the state of tension a person experiences when they hold two contradictory cognitions.2 For example, a library manager who believes that she must approve every book ordered for the library while also decrying the slow pace of ordering at her library must be exhibiting extreme mental gymnastics to justify her micromanaging just to avoid admitting she was wrong.
More often than not, the reality of our overachieving culture is to avoid admitting failure at all costs. So when you have staked your career and reputation on a particular policy or theory, it takes a certain kind of bravery and confidence to take a stand and acknowledge failure.
Now that we’ve established how hard it is to admit failure, let’s look at all the benefits to be gained if we actually learn to do just that. While admitting personal failure is challenging, history has shown that most of us have no trouble recognizing the failures of others! Many a staff meeting and email chain has been devoted to analyzing what went wrong. Occasionally, blame is assigned and action items are drawn up. Collectively, we wonder what we can do to avoid making this mistake in the future. And then—nothing. All too often, things stay the same.
Edmondson asserts that, despite count- less hours spent studying and analyzing failures in their organizations, many managers do not ultimately make any real changes. This is a result of managers think- ing about failure the wrong way. Learning from failure is not as easy as it looks when applied to real-world situations. It’s easy to point out what went wrong and vow to take a different approach in the future, but successfully following through can be challenging, especially if it involves breaking with long-held traditions.
This issue comes up often in the public library setting when it comes to public computers. Many libraries, concerned with the idea of children potentially stumbling upon upsetting images, have installed filters on computers that ostensibly “ filter out” images and websites that the software deems inappropriate for a library setting. The vast majority of these filters do a terrible job and, in many cases, end up blocking harmless and important websites, as was the case at a town library where a filter consistently blocked the local middle school’s website. More egregiously, Internet filters can prevent patrons from looking up information about important subjects such as breast cancer and sexual abuse. Despite complaints from patrons and a widely held belief that Internet filters fail to do their intended job to the detriment of patrons, their use persists. I see this as an example of a failed policy that we will ultimately have a hard time ending due to the fear of pornography in a library setting.
The faulty results of Internet filters bring to mind what Duke University professor Sim Sitkin calls “intelligent failures,” or previously unexperienced situations from which new information is learned.3 Pornography on public computers at the library is a pretty common reality. Filters, while a great idea in theory, are not reliable. But without trying them out and receiving consistent, frustrated feedback from middle schoolers and their parents, the librarians would have never known that such a problem could occur. As a result, they experimented with different filters and provided invaluable feedback to the software companies.
So what are the best strategies for learning from failure? After reading widely and considering the idea of failure in a variety of settings, I have extrapolated five simple but effective ideas to keep in mind when facing a failure.
1. Let Go of the Idea That Failure Is Always Bad
“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.”—J.K. Rowling4
Failure can and often does lead to some- thing good. We have already discussed the unfortunate tendency of our society to make more out of failure then it does out of success. Despite this, try to remember the duality of failure. Emma Caywood, a children’s librarian, remembers a program she created at the request of her middle school patrons who wanted to be part of a theater club. Caywood spent a great deal of money and effort getting personal scripts made for the middle school kids and planning their dramatic table reads. But when the time came to do the program, not one of the middle schoolers made good on their promise to show up. Caywood was left with a stack of expensive personalized scripts. Her solution? Find another use for the materials within the library’s community: she used the scripts for another theater program held at the middle school, a much more accessible location for the students. Cay- wood worked with an idea that initially felt like a failure, but ultimately inspired another exciting, better program.
2. Embrace Unpredictability
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”—Thomas A. Edison5
Working with the public is unpredictable. Patrons often bring their personal lives with them into the library, and the result is sometimes messy: disagreements happen, emotions get involved. Librarians who work with children learn to build unpredictability into their programs. I recall being heckled by a pack of seven-year-olds at a Halloween storytime because my books weren’t “scary enough.” So I ditched the books and led a costume parade instead. One public librarian I spoke with recalled a time she booked a musical performer at her library and had a room full of about 150 people waiting expectantly, but the performer never showed. Rather than dismiss the disappointed group, she quickly rallied a fellow librarian who played the guitar, and together they threw an impromptu jam session and dance party. What she learned from that experience, she explained, was to embrace unpredictability. Don’t just expect it, build it into your plan! Hope for the best, plan for the worst is her new motto. This attitude also functions as a healthy alternative to fearing failure. It forces you to think about the worst that can happen, which can, in turn, foster creativity in ways you don’t expect.
3. Consider Blame Carefully
“Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.”—John Wooden6
When things go wrong, it’s easy—and some might say natural—to look elsewhere before looking at yourself when you assign blame. Why not try looking at failure a different way? While recognizing who was at fault for a particular policy or event, consider thanking them for bringing the organization to a place where they can recognize, analyze, and strategize techniques for future success. Doing so can only help lessen the fear of failure that is too often cultivated in the workplace. By making it a jumping-off point for discussion, you are also inviting your coworkers to more readily admit their own mistakes and failures so that growth can happen.
4. Recognize the Complexity of Failure
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”—Robert F. Kennedy7
There is no one kind of failure. It comes in all shapes and sizes. When analyzing what went wrong, remember to look at the whole problem, from top to bottom. Who knew about the problem? When did we first become aware that something wasn’t working? Public libraries are often understated and their librarians overworked. When considering a public library failure, look at all of the individuals involved. Did they have enough backup and regular breaks while working? Had they been properly trained for the job they were doing? Did a program have too many people? Was the line at the circulation desk twenty people deep? Maybe the Internet was slow or not working. Maybe a guest failed to show up. Most failures are complex; in order to best learn from them, it is essential to step back and honestly identify the various factors involved.
5. Sometimes the Only Way to Learn Is to Try and Fail
“Failures are nger posts on the road to achievement.”—C.S. Lewis8
Whenever I recommend books to a patron, I always encourage them to not only try the two or three titles I suggest but also to come back and please, please tell me if they didn’t work for them. After repeating this enough times to my regular patrons, they have finally gotten brave enough to do just that. “I hated this,” they tell me sometimes. “You were really off the mark with this one.” Great! Now I can mentally adjust that person’s reading profile so that I can improve future recommendations. Reading recommendations are always a shot in the dark, no matter how good you think you are at giving them. But the willingness to try new authors, while it sometimes leads to failed interviews, can also lead to the discovery of a new favorite. To get there, however, the librarian and the patron must be willing to try and fail, sometimes several times, before getting to the right place.
Growth is not possible without failure. At the same time, it is important to remember not to let yourself get too caught up in what went wrong. Recognize, analyze, and strategize. And then move on! Don’t dwell on the mistakes, or you will only find yourself going backward. Public libraries have had to adapt and change over the years to stay relevant and crucial in the lives of their patrons. Without a willingness to try new things and an acceptance that failure is part of all new endeavors, there is no way that libraries could continue to hold the revered space they still do in modern culture. After all, as Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie said, “We are all failures—At least, the best of us are.”9
- Amy C. Edmondson, “Strategies for Learning from Failure,” Harvard Business Review, Apr. 2011, accessed Feb. 9, 2017.
- Elliot Aronson, “Why It’s Hard to Admit to Being Wrong,” NPR.org, July 20, 2007, accessed Feb. 9, 2017.
- Edmondson, “Strategies for Learning from Failure.”
- Ekaterina Walter, “30 Powerful Quotes on Failure,” Forbes, Dec. 30, 2013, accessed Feb. 9, 2017.